Author Archives: movieswithmark

Cage #5: The Cotton Club (1984)

cottonclubAnother supporting role for Cage in another Francis Ford Coppola film, yet I will soldier on. I will watch any number of Richard Gere movies if it means finishing my mission. Diane Lane’s presence should sweeten the pot – I seem to have watched an awful lot of Diane Lane lately. Ladies and Gentlemen the Fabulous StainsStreets of FireRumble FishJudge Dredd… Oh wait, she was nominated for a Razzie in this movie. Fuck. Well, it seems to have done fairly well critically and got nominated for some other ACTUAL awards. Here we go.

We get a few plots to follow, which would be engaging if any of them shared anything thematically with each other. Richard Gere plays Dixie Dwyer, a musician who unwittingly saves the life of a gangster, Dutch Schultz. Dutch gets Dwyer to work for him out of gratitude and subsequently Dwyer falls for one of his girls, Cicero. Meanwhile, Nicolas Cage as Dwyer’s brother rides his coattails into a life of crime. So Gere and Lane are in a forbidden love affair while the gangsters fight over territory in Harlem. And behind all that, Gregory Hines and his brother are vying for stardom as dancers at the club where most of the action takes place – The Cotton Club.

Sounds pretty epic! It might have been if it it didn’t play like a big budget TV movie. The natural performances deserve praise and some of the cinematography too. I am saddened to say, however, that this is one of the bad Francis Ford Coppola movies. When the credit comes up that the film was inspired by a “pictorial history” of the real Cotton Club, my spidey sense went off. What we get is another pictorial history. The stories are held together with a paste of period dance numbers, elaborate sets (for the time), and fancy costumes. The movie bombed hard – $28 million earned against a $58 million budget, yet still garnered some critical acclaim including an Academy nomination for Production Design.

Now how was this movie nominated for a Best Editing Oscar? The whole movie feels like a rough cut. Perhaps it was a token nomination to recognize the challenge of overlapping dialogue and ever-present musical tracks. But seriously, an early moment where someone suddenly gets stabbed to death strikes such a false note, I was convinced my copy of the movie had skipped a few seconds. I wasn’t astonished by the action, I was confused by the nearly unrelated images playing before me. An edit should never be confusing unless you’re David Lynch – and even then it would have a point. This is a straightforward scene that got bungled. I have a feeling something else is at play here – maybe the stabbing was too graphic even for an R-rated movie in this era and the MPAA demanded some cuts. Still, instead of making the scene work somehow some way, they cut to a close up of Fred Gywnne being shocked and called it a day. Very slapdash work. Near the end they try to do some crosscutting between assassinations and tap dancing, which is just like the end of The Godfather, but with tap dancing. In other words, a shameful repetition of one of Coppola’s finest moments that signifies nothing in this film. And a couple spinning newspaper montages to cover some time are almost expected in this genre, not deserving of an award. Christ, a pivotal close up is OUT OF FOCUS! It’s the editor’s job to pick a take that ISN’T OUT OF FOCUS! And the camera op’s job to keep that stuff in focus, but I digress…

Considering Coppola was also nominated for a Golden Globe for direction, I think the awards season accolades were the industry kissing his butt. Probably in an effort to keep the running time under 3 hours, there are always seem to be two conversations happening at once. It can be done in a way that makes it all make sense, but not here. I do not get the feeling of a vibrant time that was full of energy, I get the feeling that there are definitely more interesting conversations happening in other parts of the room. Maybe more importantly, the various dance performances are not improved by the editing. It would have been better to stay back and watch the master tap dancers do their thing. If you can make it boring to watch Gregory Hines dance, you fucked up.

This is essentially a gangster love story and Coppola seems like a natural choice for the material. He made sure the sets and dance numbers were suggestive of the period, then stopped. The movie feels phoned in, and in a way it may have been. Producer Robert Evans was supposed to direct it, but got cold feet and convinced Coppola to take over so pre-production wasn’t a total waste. Francis Ford Coppola will live forever as an innovator in film, so why didn’t he do any innovating in The Cotton Club? This is as dry a treatment of the subject matter as I’ve ever seen. The three threads of the movie sound like they might be interesting on their own, but when they have to sacrifice screen time to each other, they become nothing more than surface level replicas of a bygone era. Instead of being affected by human stories, we’re held back by the film’s aspirations of being epic. Before we can get deeply involved, we’re off to the next plot line. Oddly, the “A” story between Dixie and Cicero is the least satisfying. The hoodlum stuff is at the least the most entertaining, with Bob Hoskins and Fred Gwynne playing a pair of lovable Odd Couple gangsters. A little scene between them concerning a watch was genuinely heartwarming! The machinations of the bosses are fairly rote for the audience though. Some mafiosos want more territory so they bump off the competition, no big deal, we’ve seen it plenty. The rivalry between the tap dancing brothers and the experience of the inherent racism of the time really should be its own movie. This story seems forced into The Cotton Club and never gets its proper spotlight. And the ending… It’s like they ran out of money. We end with an 8 1/2 style fantasy mashup of all the storylines and it feels unnecessary, ineffective, and just plain weird. I didn’t leave this one feeling satisfied. There have been significantly better gangster movies, romance movies, and showbiz movies before and after this one. Coppola succeeded merely at recreating the Cotton Club. If only something worthwhile was happening within it.

I give The Cotton Club four blood-stained Diane Lanes out of ten, if only to acknowledge the performers’ talent and the director’s attention to detail throughout the movie. I wish there were some standout dance numbers, but nothing impresses the way it should.

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Bonus: An early performance from Mario Van Peebles, perhaps his first in a theatrical feature film since Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song when he was just 14. He just does some interpretive dance, but I thought it was notable.

Jason Bourne (2016)

jasonbourneI liked the first one, I REALLY liked the second one, and got lost on the third one. Didn’t even watch the fourth one, which was a really cheap attempt at world building ala Marvel. (Side note: Why do they always go to Jeremy Renner when trying to expand an existing franchise? I’m honestly surprised they didn’t throw him into Fantastic Beasts…) This fifth one gave me hope because Matt Damon was coming back – until I saw the trailer. It sparked memories of Rambo III and not in a good way, if that’s even possible.

The movie starts out with a quick recap of the previous films. It’s been 9 years since we saw Damon in the role and the important plot points need some refreshing: Jason Bourne, Treadstone program superman, is shot on a mission, is rescued, but has amnesia, and must rediscover who he was. The first three movies cover that whole arc. At the end of the third movie he states plainly, “I remember everything.” Cue Moby’s “Extreme Ways!”

So now he remembers everything, but it turns out there’s more to learn all the same. Sadly, this involves his father, following a disappointing trend in recent films of unnecessarily involving the main character’s parents as part of their tragic origins. Lookin’ at you Amazing Spider-Man, you fuck. But I’m jumping ahead. Rambo III. J.B. is working out in the Albanian/Greek desert (They have deserts? TIL.) as a pit fighter. One would think a guy this capable could make money in any number of ways, but the implication is that he can’t get away from his violent tendencies. He has flashbacks to his scandalous past (the aforementioned recap) and feels guilty for the lives he has taken. Instead of becoming a volunteer librarian in the Netherlands, he fights other meaty dudes for money. Or not, you never see him get paid. Maybe he’s a volunteer pit fighter. Sometimes he takes out his opponents with his first blow, other times he takes a lot of punishment before finishing things. Strange way to pay penance. Anyway, the underground fighting is just the first of a whole slew of cliches that this movie serves up.

Enter Julia Stiles as ex-CIA employee Nicky Parsons, currently badass hacker. She shows up to a dark warehouse full of computer equipment to hack into the CIA’s database. Apparently hackers don’t turn on the lights. Within minutes we are confronted with images of folders lamely labeled BLACK OPS, slow download progress bars (oh, the tension!), CIA agents on the other side of that download furiously typing to counter-hack Parsons, and someone ordering, “Enhance!” on a blurry image which miraculously becomes crystal clear. Later on, the CIA successfully deletes files from a laptop via a smartphone situated in the same room. Not directly connected with special software, it’s just sitting on the kitchen counter over there. You’d think between Bourne and the expert hacker in the room, they would know not to view stolen government secrets while connected to the fucking wifi. This is like an episode of 24. This is the stuff of PARODY. This is what shows me that the filmmakers haven’t grown with the times, they are still trying to make a CIA thriller for 2004, story points about online privacy notwithstanding.

A hallmark of this series has been Bourne’s almost entirely accidental involvement in secret government conspiracies. He just wanted to know who the fuck he was, and he found that out. And the government didn’t collapse. I am not understanding why everyone in the CIA has it in for this guy. He’s been off the radar for years, no problem. Maybe he’s just a big catch that would guarantee a promotion or something. I think because Jason Bourne has become a bit of a boogeyman within the halls of U.S. intelligence agencies, this is really a take on the Frankenstein story. EVERYBODY on the U.S. side of things seems to shudder when they hear his name. Hell, even one guy who spied on him almost 20 years ago remembers him. He is the horrible mistake they collectively made that needs to be corrected. Of course, they think he’s working with/in charge of Nicky Parsons who just stole a bunch of dirty secrets. Regardless, he has absolutely no stake in revealing them to the world. Why can’t he just say so when they manage to get him on the phone? People just don’t talk through their problems… Doesn’t matter in this case because Bourne has to find out who killed his daddy. Jason Bourne might as well be subtitled This Time It’s Personal (That’s Why We Used His Full Name). The retconned plot about his dad having something to do with Treadstone doesn’t go anywhere, but we do get a Bondesque French Anti-Bourne known only as The Asset who has a personal vendetta against Bourne for inadvertently getting a bunch of spies captured, tortured, or killed through his actions in previous films. I’ll give you three guesses who killed Papa Bourne.

I’m ignorant of the real world CIA staff, so maybe it’s totally normal for a bunch of foreign people to be working for the CIA in every corner of the globe. Alicia Vikander as an up-and-coming Cyber Security analyst is Swedish, Vincent Cassel: Super Assassin is French, and a whole bunch of heavies that appear to be locals in whatever country all take orders from the CIA. When a Frenchman carrying out assassinations for Uncle Sam calls Bourne a traitor, I can’t help but chuckle. I think Francois Hollande would like a word with you, sir. Furthermore, I need to point out that these government agents totally suck at blending in. They have giant earpieces you can spot across the street (except for the important ones who don’t). They are all conspicuously looking for their target or locked on like a T-800. And they’re not so subtly shouting things into their shoulders like, “Bravo team, eyes on target!” It’s like a bunch of bodybuilders are doing a flash mob at random locations throughout Europe. I would call the cops on people doing what they do in this movie. It is a strange dichotomy between these buffoons and the nigh-omnipotent government power they work for – the people who are casually ordering hits across the globe and tracking every cell phone in the world somehow. I’m unclear on the thugs’ backgrounds though. Are these ALL graduates of the Treadstone program? Shit, I hope not. What a waste of time and money. Total amateur hour.

Greengrass missed an opportunity to make a comment on how the world has changed since Bourne last surfaced and how he has too. Remember the classic image of a bus driving in front of Bourne and then he’s disappeared when the bus moves on? I think they do it in all the previous movies. They have that shot set up and I’m ready for it. Practically salivating for some of that good old Bourne stuff. Bourne walks away from camera. The bus drives across screen and… Oh, he’s still just walking away from camera. I thought it was supposed to be clever or funny or something about how he’s too old to pull that disappearing act anymore. I was wrong on all counts. His advancing age is never an issue in the story and it was obviously not a joke. Obvious because the movie has no sense of humor. These are fairly serious films, sure, but Franka Potente’s disbelief at Bourne’s abilities in the first one was a bit of precious relief from all that seriousness. This movie has none of that what-the-fuck perspective. Everybody is an insider, no “normal” people are a part of this anymore, and nothing is amazing as a result. It’s expected. Almost run-of-the-mill. The blurry shakycam 1.5sec long fist fights are back and distracting as ever. The car chase of the finale is exciting, but it is not interesting in the slightest. And let’s forget about the nonsensical way it’s put together, with no clear lines of action to be found. It’s more that the actual bad guy of the story has been dealt with by then and the only thing left is wanton destruction. Not a thing is at stake. They smash through blocks and blocks of Las Vegas traffic, probably killing more people than Bourne has in his whole assassin career, all in the name of pointless revenge, which is not what Bourne is supposed to be about as a character, and there’s not even a goddamn Ocean’s 11 reference.

Look, I don’t need a Bourne movie to occupy the same space as The Man from U.N.C.L.E. or the campier James Bond movies. All I want is the people in Bourne movies to react to situations like human beings instead of exposition vending machines. The best we get is Tommy Lee Jones, who at least has something to play besides, ‘There’s Bourne! Shoot him!’ He gets to be a mean old Washington man who is having his career threatened by a young, ambitious, forward-thinking *gulp* woman! Maybe it’s not a villain that will be remembered for years to come, but literally every other character is stoic to the point of boredom. Paul Greengrass directed and co-wrote this movie. He has made some incredible films and I think he will again. It seems that he was so focused on remaking The Bourne Ultimatum that he forgot to make a movie about people. We got a movie about easily hacked computers and indestructible cars instead.

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Jason Bourne earns four fatal car wrecks on the Vegas strip out of a possible ten. Now I’ve got “Extreme Ways” stuck in my head. Damn, you Moby!

Cage #4: Racing with the Moon (1984)

RWTMThis is the first movie of Nicolas Cage’s career that I can honestly say isn’t worth watching. That means it’s basically harmless and forgettable. Even bad movies, really bad movies, can be worth a watch (see “The Best of Times”). Racing With the Moon isn’t bad, it’s just sorta…there. Which is bad enough, I suppose. It begins, some stuff happens of varying import, then it’s over.

What we got here is your totally standard coming of age story set in a realm of magical nostalgia. Think Stand By Me, but with more abortions. I’m choosing to ignore the fact that Stand By Me came out two years after this picture. There’s even a race against a train like in Stand By Me, though the roles in the contest are reversed.

Sean Penn (“Hopper”) and Nicolas Cage (“Nicky”… Man, I hate when characters have the same name as the actor portraying them.) are best buds in a small California town in 1942. They’ve got a couple months before they are shipped off to fight in WW2, so they decide to make the best of the time they have left. To Hopper, this includes trying to make the rich girl at school his girlfriend.

Notable is the presence of Crispin Glover as “Gatsby Boy,” a rich brat at the bowling alley. Notable because they were both in “The Best of Times,” both of their acting debuts. Are they still in touch, you think? Does anybody know anybody who knows either of these gentlemen? I need to get them in the same room again.

Well, anyway, the rich girl it turns out ain’t so rich. She lives in a rich family’s house – in the servant’s quarters more or less because her mom is the maid. Yadda yadda yadda, Nicky’s girlfriend needs an abortion – meaning Nicky is the one who REALLY needs the abortion – but those cost money. Hopper asks his “rich” lady friend for the necessary funds and the whole thing falls apart. She thinks he only wanted her because she was rich.

Who the hell is this movie for? People who fondly remember the days of soda jerks, secret abortions, and manually operated bowling alleys? I don’t know which of those is worse… I bet it’s good for teenagers because they are a self-important crowd and here are two teenagers preparing to go to war, that most selfless and heroic of acts, and their minuscule problems that feel so large to kids. These guys aren’t heroes, though, they’re just a couple of dumb asses who enjoy resenting their lot in life.

It’s a sitcom structure in the end. Some physical humor linking together a story of boy meets girl. Personal bonds are tested and broken, but everybody sees the error of their ways and gets back together just in time to go fight a war. It’s about as deep as the holes in a bowling ball. If I had to get ten back alley abortions, I’d only get four of them with Hopper and Nicky.

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Poltergeist (2015)

Poltergeist2015The original Poltergeist is one of America’s horror classics and I’m not afraid to say it. The announcement of its remake/reboot/reimagining/whatever fucking studios are calling them now brought mixed emotions. On the one hand, YAY someone out there appreciates Tobe Hooper’s masterpiece (yes, better than Texas Chainsaw Massacre) and wants to bring it to modern audiences who might never bother with the original, on the other hand, BOO they’re just going to make an Indisious clone and slap the Poltergeist title on there. Let us forget for the moment that Insidious is just a ripoff of Poltergeist in the first place. Actually, scratch that – let us NEVER forget that Insidious is a blatant ripoff of Poltergeist no matter how many dumb sequels they make. I’m a big fan of Sam Rockwell, the trailer creeped the hell out of me, and Sam Raimi’s Ghost House Pictures was producing, so I decided to keep my hopes up for Poltergeist ’15. Was I right to do that? Let’s find out.

Did I mention I’m also a fan of the director Gil Kenan? His Monster House was great and I even liked City of Ember to a certain extent. The fact that he hasn’t directed something in 6-7 years was worrisome, but I felt that Poltergeist would be a good fit since Monster House, another haunted house story, went over so well. With me. Did other people like it? IMDB says…6.7. Well, fuck the rest of you, I thought it was inventive and just scary enough and hilarious. Hope Status: Still high.

My fears of seeing a classic turned into an Insidious clone did not come to pass exactly, but it is rather paint-by-numbers. Especially if you’ve seen the Hooper version. The modern stylings of the genre have ensured that this remake will almost certainly be forgotten. It’s a slickly filmed, jump scare-laden movie starring pretty people going through some hard times. Honestly, not much different here from The Conjuring except that Conjuring was scarier. There is nothing left that sticks out about this film. Like that film, this is about a family dealing with the various inconveniences of living in a haunted house. Unlike that film, this one seems to pull its punches. That one was R, this one is PG-13, so it’s not like it doesn’t make sense. This is the “family” horror film of the year. It’s heroes and victims are the children. The kids are the ones who understand what’s happening while the adults alternately freak out and refuse to listen. I understand that maybe a movie geared towards kids maybe doesn’t want to show a guy tearing his own face off like in the original (rated PG!), but I don’t know why a film must coddle its audience. Of course, I can’t put myself in an 8-year old’s shoes and tell you how scary it is, but I wonder if the movie would even hold an 8-year old’s attention.

There is little new material in the plot to interest fans of the original. When I called this paint-by-numbers, I meant it. All the very same beats are struck, all very mechanically. Things have been swapped out, sure, but the feeling is gone. Instead of the stacking chairs (also ripped off by the cabinets in The Sixth Sense), we get CG stacking comic books. Instead of the magic spot that slides stuff across the kitchen floor, the kids discover their hair sticks up when touching a doorknob. The big child-eating tree is replaced with a CG monster-armed tree that can reach into the inner recesses of the house. Even the dialogue is ripped out of the old movie and placed in new characters’ mouths. Is this homage or lack of creativity? Honestly, the thing that they get right is that clown doll. Jesus, that thing and all the other smaller clowns are terrifying. In the one case where I couldn’t tell if it was CG or a physical prop, the many clown dolls populating a kid’s room are seen moving juuuust out of the light before freezing ala Toy Story. They don’t make movies that are just plain creepy anymore, but this scene worked well for me. However, since it is a remake of a superior original, what they get wrong in this version? Back in the 80s they didn’t have much in the way of CGI. They just used puppets. So while this movie makes the most out of an army of clown dolls getting closer and closer to our protagonist while he’s not looking, the original made the most out of a clown doll…just sitting there. So which is better? You can probably guess my choice, but it really is up to you and your tastes.

Let me ask another question. Why is it that paranormal researchers in movies have all these cool gadgets to find and study ghosts, and they all work, and people still treat them like crackpots? I’m not picking on Poltergeist here, but all movies from the last 20 years where these characters are portrayed as frustrated loons. In Ghostbusters, the characters became quite famous for inventing the technology to detect and trap ghosts, as you might expect. Nobel prizes would be handed out to these people. And again, in the original Poltergeist, the scientists that show up to help haven’t been through this before. They are as astounded as anyone else at what they’re seeing. And one could imagine that they go and try to tell others what has happened, but no one believes them. This modern invention of the ghost and/or monster hunter who has seen it all (twice) is a lazy screenwriting trick to provide an ending to the story. This remake also fails to rise above in this respect and introduces a reality TV star who really totally CAN communicate with the spirits. By yelling at them. Why he’s just got a reality show instead of James Randi knocking down his door, I don’t know. To be fair, the psychic played by Zelda Rubinstein in the first one also just yelled a lot at the evil spirits. But at least she showed up and appeared to learn about the situation instead of showing up fully loaded and ready to kick some poltergeist ass.

Okay, look, by now you know I vastly prefer the 1982 version of Poltergeist. And you should too. If you don’t, you’re not as good a person as you could be. I have strong opinions not just about movies, but about HOW they make movies today. I don’t generally like the polished, color-graded, gritty, sexy, violent state of movies today. I like horror movies from the Hooper/Carpenter/Craven era. Poltergeist was a victim to a cookie-cutter genre film industry. Instead of reveling in the things that made Poltergeist different and fun, they cut it down to fit in with the rest of the other horror movies today and managed to suck most of the life out of it. Aside from a few good changes, such as getting to see the “other side” through the lens of an RC drone, this is mostly a bland homage to a way better movie. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy it at all. The jump scares, while cheap, were still effective. It was, despite my feelings about Poltergeist  ’82, a nice little paranormal adventure movie. A little light on the drama, but good. Perhaps I’m being too forgiving. If this is your introduction to Poltergeist, I envy you because the best is yet to come.

I give this shallow, but acceptable remake 5 headstones out of 10. The other 5 have been relocated to another cemetery. I think.

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Cage #3: Rumble Fish (1983)

Rumble_PosterI can’t say I sympathize very much with Rumble Fish’s Rusty James. (Always Rusty+James, never Rusty or, heaven forbid, Rust. Rusty James.) He’s basically a punk who struggles throughout the film to be the Ultimate Punk and fails. See, his older brother Motorcycle Boy (again, always by that moniker as if it were on his birth certificate) actually was the Ultimate Punk until he left for reasons mysterious to his friends. In the neighborhood punk power vacuum, Rusty James has stepped up his game. Now he’s getting into gang fights like in the video for “Bad”, gets kicked out of school, and he’s messing around on his woman because he thinks he’s the king. But now Motorcycle Boy has returned, and a good thing too, for he saves Rusty James’ skin time and time again.

Rusty James wants to fight even if he’s always second best. He’s got a family name to uphold. (What is the family name? James? Boy?) His dad is another drunk played by Dennis Hopper. Maybe he was always best known for playing characters under the influence of some drug or another, but he was good at it, I’ll give him that. So Rusty James could either look to a degenerate or a thug for a male role model in his life. He went with the thug.

Upon the thug’s return it is clear he’s a changed man. Sort of. Mickey Rourke described the character as “an actor who no longer finds his work interesting.” Despite his insistence that he’s no longer in the gang life, he keeps. on. doing. gang shit. In his first appearance he runs over another dude with his goddamn motorcycle. Later on he antagonizes the police and commits a B&E. Nice move, partner. In a lot of ways, I wish the movie was about Motorcycle Boy realizing the error of his ways and finding a more peaceful existence. Too bad that happens before the movie even starts. Also too bad that Rourke was more interested in doing an impersonation of Brando. It’s a strange, mumbling performance that somewhat upholds everyone’s suspicions that Motorcycle Boy is crazy, but does little to convince us he’s a gangland Gandhi. I’m pretty sure anyone who tries to “rescue” animals from pet stores en masse really is a bit cuckoo.

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Some interesting techniques are used by Francis Ford Coppola to illustrate Rumble Fish’s world. Most obviously a color trick used in an otherwise black and white film. It draws parallels between the Siamese fighting fish in the pet store and Rusty James – at different points they are the only things to take on any color, red and blue in both cases.

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Motorcycle Boy has a rather on the nose explanation of the fighting fishes’ behavior, so I’ll not get into it here. (If you watch the movie and don’t get it, let me know. I’ll swing by sometime and hit you in the head with a cartoon mallet.) In an early scene of a gang fight, Coppola brings in a manic energy that is sorely lacking throughout the rest of the movie. As the two gang leaders draw close for their battle, trains race through the background, perhaps out of control on a collision course. Smoke lines the streets of this small podunk town, giving it an apocalyptic, war-torn vibe.

And something I initially dismissed as pretentiously showy is how the sky rolls by above Rusty James and his gang. The clouds form and disintegrate in timelapse photography while Rusty James makes his plans and has his fights.

Youth is wasted on the young, they say. Time is slipping past at an incredible rate and Rusty James fails to notice. He could easily spend the rest of his life trying to be on top of his little violent world and then end up just like his dad – drunk, washed up, wishing the past could have worked out a little better.

This story has its heart in the right place. Unfortunately, uneven direction from Coppola that seems to focus more on tricks than straightforward drama and an oddball performance from Mickey Rourke hold me back. Maybe I should read the book. I give this one five Siamese fighting fish (they’re not called “rumble fish” Motorcycle Boy! There’s probably a tag on the shelf that says it right in front of you!) out of ten.

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And oh yeah, Nicolas Cage plays Rusty James’ semi-loyal second in command. And for once, Cage might be the only sane voice in the whole picture. Surely something that is not repeated often in his oeuvre.

Cage #2: Valley Girl (1983)

Valley_GirlValley Girl, the story of a popular hot girl who trades down to be with a social misfit who has bad teeth. I can’t imagine that this is the movie that spawned a thousand imitations of the cheesy high school romance culminating at the prom. It cannot be true, for that would be giving it some credit. It’s got to be something from the silent era with Harold Lloyd which holds that honor. Tell me where this cliche structure came from. I have to know. Wikipedia tells us that this was a very low budget film that shocked its financial backers when it turned out to be somewhat watchable. They just wanted to see some tits, then they got an actual releasable movie. So that’s where we’re starting from, plot-wise.

Nicolas Cage at his goofiest looking plays Randy, a punk rocker from Hollywood who catches the Valley Girl’s eye at the beach. The beach? Punk rockers spend a lot of time at the beach, do they? Fine. Anyway, the timing works out well for Loryn (with a Y!), said Valley Girl, who has just dumped her boyfriend for basically being a dick to everybody all the time. Why his other friends don’t dump him too is a question worth asking. Randy shows up at a party and hits it off with Loryn only to get kicked out by Mr. Jealous Ex-Boyfriend. But he goes back because “Nobody is gonna tell me who I can score with!” I think Randy isn’t exactly a poet at heart.

As Loryn succumbs to the filthy cesspool that was Hollywood (as opposed to the glamorous cesspool it is today), her friends begin to worry for her safety and that of her social status. On the verge of becoming an outcast, she ditches Randy immediately and gets back with the dickhead. Because I guess if they stayed together, the story wouldn’t end with your typical physical confrontation over the girl. The worst thing I can say about Valley Girl is that it’s all very average and expected, right down to the slumber party scene with most of the female cast dancing around in their skivvies. Boy meets girl, gets girl, loses girl, defeats other boy, takes girl to hotel for ceremonial post-prom deflowering. Pretty simple stuff. Along the way it’s not particularly funny, not sufficiently dramatic, and not all that interesting beyond its use as a time capsule of the era. I think the soundtrack is better than the rest of the movie. Valley Girl earns four toothy Nic Cages out of ten. Remember, just because it isn’t the worst example of the genre doesn’t mean it is worth watching.

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Check out the trailer, if only for the final line:

Cage #1: The Best of Times (1981)

Nicolas Cage’s very first credit on IMDB is a little-seen TV special called “Best of Times.” This was made as a pilot to an ABC series that thankfully never came together. I can’t speak to why exactly that is, but I suspect it has something to do with how incredibly shitty it is.

The Best of Times is about a bunch of teenagers in southern California who struggle with the usual run of teenage problems. Except school. The main message I took away from this show was kids never went to school in the early 80s. Okay, they did visit the school occasionally to hang out on the front steps and walk together on the lush green lawn, but classes were not really a problem. That’s not what the writers want you to remember. They open and close the show by equating teenagers to a trodden upon class of citizenry, perpetually nagged by parents AND teachers alike, oh my. Poor sons of bitches. They should have a march. Crispin Glover serves as our puffy-haired, only slightly whiny, everyman host named…Crispin.

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I guess this was one of those instances where using the cast’s real names was just going to make things easier on everybody. Nicolas Coppola plays Nick! Julie Piekarski plays Julie! Etc, etc. All except for Jackie Mason, who plays shopkeeper Mr. O’Reilly. Call me crazy, but Jackie Mason doesn’t strike me as a member of the O’Reilly clan. Luckily, not much is made of his name in the show, so I’m just nitpicking.

What brings this particular group of friends together is a mystery. Crispin is your average Joe, Nick is a hyperconfident douche nozzle who hangs out at Muscle Beach, and we also have the biggest nerd in the school, the most virginated of virgins in the school, the head cheerleader, the tomboy, and the “fat” girl who totally isn’t fat, but they show her eating a cruller or something at one point. Do they all live on the same cul-de-sac? These people don’t seem to have any similar interests beyond sudden outbursts of dance and song (I’ll get to that shortly.) Even when Crispin introduces Nick to us, who is performing 1-armed pushups on the beach, he implies that he feels physically threatened by Nick, therefore he has befriended him in an effort to not get beaten up. Or something? I know, I know, it’s a late disco-era attempt at a teen variety show, so just what in the fuck am I expecting in terms of character depth? Even in Saved By the Bell we had this problem of jocks inexplicably hanging out with nerds. At least there it could be argued that Screech was allowed into the group just to make the others look better by comparison. Even if he was stalking Lisa. I’d like to think that the youth of America used to be a kinder, gentler group of people, more prone to socializing outside of their caste, and by the time I reached high school the structure had disintegrated so we were all left to scrounge and scrape for friends wherever we could find them. I know this is incorrect, though, because I have seen Revenge of the Nerds. At least the girls manage to find some common ground: makeup, clothes, and boys, duh. Ah, it was a simpler time.

There is a musical element to the show and I don’t know if that’s because musical TV was hot shit at the time or if some ABC development executive thought it would bring in a more eclectic crowd. Maybe I should ask my parents if this was a common format for TV back then. Regardless, I will illustrate the quality of these musical numbers with a GIF.

Come on, that’s all you really came for, isn’t it? While that particular part includes no singing, just a Stomp-like flash mob in Jackie “O’Reilly” Mason’s convenience store, other scenes have the gang dancing like maniacs and performing cover versions of Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5” at a car wash and Pat Benatar’s “Heartbreaker” while Crispin Glover tries on pants and gets publicly groped by all of his close female friends. These sequences do not have anything to do with a story or any character’s dramatic arc. They come out of nowhere with the flimsiest of setups. ‘I remember working at a car wash once, NOW WE’RE AT A CAR WASH!’ ‘I hate chores, LET’S SING ABOUT CHORES AND THEN PLAY FRISBEE!’

To take a break from the musical chicanery, we get the occasional monologue delivered directly to the camera, showing us that not only our host Crispin has this ability. Subjects of these speeches include:

  • Crispin: Adults think my music sucks and I’m on pot!
  • Nick: I don’t want to be sent to war in El Salvador!
  • Jill: I’m lonely and jeans are too expensive!

If the actual goal of the show was to convince grown ups that teenagers are well-rounded humans with thoughts and desires that are more than just skin deep and therefore deserve some modicum of respect, they could have done a better job here. The jeans speech especially leaves me dry. Jill claims that teenagers started wearing jeans because they needed their own identity. I could be wrong, as history has never been my strong suit, but I think teenagers started wearing jeans because they were cheap and The Man didn’t like them. If those designer brands are too expensive for you, kid, pick up some Wranglers instead. Solid jeans, those. And The Man still hates them.

The only value this has is as a curiosity piece to Nicolas Cage or Crispin Glover fans. Given the opportunity, I would extract any information regarding The Best of Times I could out of them. I want someone to make a goddamn documentary about this pilot. Again, not because it’s any good, just because it’s where Crispin and Nic started out. Hindsight is 20/20, of course, and we all know what a huge star he became, but I think it’s clear that Cage had “it” even this early. He behaves like such a buffoon that it’s clear he has no internal limitations. He was only limited by experience. Every moment he is on screen he is 100% committed to his role, no matter how retarded he looks. This will be the defining trait of his entire career. Despite the early signs of his future greatness, I have to give The Best of Times a single big-headed Crispin Glover out of a possible ten.

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Since you are without a doubt eager for more pain, you may view Best of Times in all its majesty here:

The Nicolas Cage Project

Last year I put a little too much time into this video. (Embedding disabled due to TONS of copyrighted material.)

Why, yes, that IS 20 minutes of Mr. Cage laughing in various films across his entire career. It’s also 20 minutes of your life that is likely better spent on other more productive activities. I can’t stress this enough: I worked on assembling these clips together for about four months. Any time you spend watching it now is a further detriment to society. I could have learned to play the guitar in that span of time. I could have become fluent in German. You only need to understand that this video clip now exists. (For whose pleasure? Nobody knows.)

Lately I’ve had a lot of free time. Unemployment will do that. So I figured I should get back to writing on this long-ignored blog. And what better movies to write about than the entirety of Nicolas Cage’s filmography? No, seriously, someone let me know because I’m about to throw even more of my limited time on this spinning rock into something Nic Cage-related. Haven’t I done enough?!

In the coming days, weeks, and months I will reveal to the world what I think of each of Cage’s movies, up to and including 2014’s Rage, which I know is something the world desperately needs from me. I haven’t seen the Left Behind reboot or anything after that yet. Shit, I should check the Redbox at the 7-11 down the road…

You can wish me luck, but I wouldn’t know what to do with it if I got it.

Watching Movies

watching_moviesWhen I brought this home, my girlfriend asked me why I got a book about watching movies. I should be well acquainted with how to watch movies since I do it so often. I explained, “No, you big dummy, it’s about OTHER people watching movies.” She acquiesced with a quizzical look on her face. After reading the book, I wonder why I thought it would be interesting in the first place.

It is neither criticism nor analysis, it is purely celebrities gushing over their favorite films. Sometimes it’s not even their favorite, it’s just something they felt like watching that day. At best, it’s interesting to see what other people consider nostalgic. Even in those cases the article could really have ANYONE as its subject. Not Julianne Moore, not Barry Sonnenfeld. Quentin Tarantino has eclectic enough taste to offer up something new – an obscure Roy Rogers movie, but everyone else goes fairly mainstream and unfortunately says very little of any value in their discussions.

I was hoping to get some sort of insight into the creative process through these filmmakers discussing other films. The most useful was Nicole Kidman watching The Shining because she had worked with Kubrick and could, through firsthand experience!, describe his method of directing. What it usually boils down to is this: ‘Wow, that was a great cut!’, ‘Did you just see what that actor did there?’, ‘I love a lot of color in movies, and this has color, but I think it has too much color, I would never be caught dead putting that much color in a movie. But I like it.’ This series of articles was initially written for the Culture section of the New York Times. And there it should have remained, merely a marketing tool for those directors and actors with a new movie to sell…

At least now my educated assumption that Michael Bay is an infantile thinker is reinforced. I give the book three out of ten Michael bay headshots.

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The Greatest Story Ever Told

Just about everyone knows the story of Jesus already, so that’ll save me some time. But as Roger Ebert said, “A movie is not about what it is about, it is HOW it is about it.” You follow? Meaning you could give the same script to ten different directors and come out with ten very different movies of varying quality. So here is New Testament: The Movie brought to you in epic fashion by George Stevens. How does it fare?

I’ll say this first – I’m an atheist. I think all this stuff is pure nonsense and just happens to be one of the more recent myths in history that people still believe in. As long as it’s not overtaken by Scientology someday, maybe I shouldn’t complain. All that being said, I feel I can still look at films based on the Bible with unbiased eyes. I see them as movies first, ancient fables second, and a weird religion followed devoutly by millions third. I’ve seen a few other movie based on the same material and have had different opinions. I thought Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ was mostly a waste of fucking time, but I could still appreciate on honest attempt at making a more “realistic” version of the crucifixion of Jesus. But in the end, I did not learn anything new about Christianity and I certainly wasn’t swayed by the buckets of blood to give Christ another chance in my life. However, The Last Temptation of Christ is a great movie. It doesn’t just come up with a new twist on the old story, it uses the twist in a way that gives Jesus’ sacrifice much more meaning. Willem Dafoe’s Jesus went through psychological and spiritual torture in his last moments, as opposed to Caviezel’s mere physical torture. What I’m trying to say is, I do give these movies a chance even though they’re about a pagan sorcerer zombie that a too-large portion of the modern world believes will bring them to paradise with bottomless ice cream sundaes when they die.

First thing I noticed about this movie was its three and a half hour running time. And it feels like three and a half hours. (Wikipedia tells me original US release was 2 hours and 17 minutes. This DVD release must be an extended 3:19 cut…) Immediately the movie hits you with all the stilted stagy dialogue one may have come to expect from Biblical epics. And it never lets up. The result is not a feeling of ancient time and place, but of a really long nativity play put on by the kids in the neighborhood church. Not that the acting is all bad; Max von Sydow as Jesus and David McCallum as Judas pull off the work as well as it could be. But the movie suffers from an overabundance of star power. Claude Rains, Telly Savalas, Charlton Heston, Martin Landau, John Wayne in an infamous one line performance (“Truly he is the son of God…pardner”), and many other stars of the era are sprinkled throughout the film. I bet I missed at least a dozen – looking at the cast list on IMDB I can see several more names I recognize even if I didn’t notice them in the movie (Angela Lansbury, Pat Boone, Shelley Winters). Still, what I saw was enough to take me right out of the movie time and time again. Why did they all sign on? Was it a studio desperate to make a 3+ hour movie more palatable to the movie-going public? Did all these stars beg to have a role – any role, no matter how small – just because it was a religious picture? I don’t know and I don’t care. They should have cut sixty pages from the script and cast people who made sense for their roles instead.

This movie simply preaches directly to the audience once adult Jesus shows up. He goes to see John the Baptist aka Caveman Charlton Heston, is recognized as the messiah, and gets his first disciples. Everything between those events and the end, whereupon Jesus is crucified, is merely a string of episodes where Jesus teaches his followers, heals the blind, and delivers all of the cliched Bible verses you can think of (Do unto others, Let he who is without sin, etc etc). I guess this is no surprise to readers of the Bible, for this is the story of Jesus. Perhaps I came to this movie looking for the wrong thing, a different way of telling the same old stories. But it is just the same old stories set to moving pictures.

The Last Supper scene continues the trend and manages to simultaneously avoid any sense of doom or even basic drama AND rip off DaVinci’s famous painting. A painting is a painting is a painting and there was no reason to record the scene the same way except to trigger the memory of it in the viewers’ minds. The Last Supper will hold a place in history as long as there is a memory of it. It is significant as a piece of art, but the film can only ape it. There have been many versions of the painting over the centuries by many different artists, but when I see a plain knock off like the one in this film, I can’t help but hold it in contempt. Instead of adding something to the scene to make it resonate, something as simple as real human emotion, George Stevens instead chose to mimic the popular image of the last supper. It does not mean anything in the film. The framing is all wrong, the staging and blocking is stiff, plainly it just doesn’t make any sense to film this scene in this way. Probably it was made this way because people expected to see it this way and I consider that giving in to the lowest common denominator.

I think this scene is representative of the entire movie. Instead of delivering a religious experience, we are given Sunday school. Instead of seeing Jesus and his followers as real people going through a tremendous period of change in their lives and civilizations, we are given cardboard archetypes that only do what everyone already knows they’re going to do. Instead of trying to accompany the Bible and build on its messages, the movie is a coloring book copy of the Bible and its director dared not color outside the lines.

While some performances, especially von Sydow’s, may stand out, the epic loses points for A) trying to cram too many damn stars down our throats and B) not giving its real actors anything to do. The movie as a whole is stilted, solemn, and disengaging. I give it four Caveman Charlton Hestons out of ten, which I consider a gift. That rating is only slightly better than the actual Bible.