Rumble Fish (1983)

Rumble Fish (1983) movie poster

director Francis Ford Coppola
viewed: 04/29/2017

Francis Ford Coppola’s artsy, avant-garde approach to an S.E. Hinton novel gets the Criterion treatment. And fair enough. For the Hollywood mainstream, this was avant-garde in 1983.

A beautifully stylized aesthetic runs over every frame of Rumble Fish, which Coppola made on the heels of a more conventional take on S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders (also 1983). Cinematographer Stephen H. Burum and Coppola channel Orson Welles, Expressionism, and aspects of European cinema of the 1950’s and 1960’s, turning Tulsa, OK into abstracts and back again into storefronts, alleys, and dirty back roads.

This is a teen film, but so set-back and removed that it’s an aesthetic experience before anything else. And it’s gorgeous.

Mickey Rourke, right off Diner (1982), and as fresh-faced as you can imagine, is Motorcycle Boy, older brother and legend in younger brother Matt Dillon’s mind. While all Dillon can think of is fighting and becoming his own minor league legend, Rourke’s Motorcycle Boy is somehow already broken inside after a trip to California, seeing the mother that abandoned them, and winding up in a magazine. What tortures Motorcycle Boy is never really fully named, though the metaphorical colored fish that he tries to dump in the river are a clear and colorful metaphor.

I watched this with my 13 year old daughter, who found it a bit confusing, but like it.

Valley Girl (1983)

Valley Girl (1983) movie poster


director Martha Coolidge
viewed: 04/08/2016

This viewing of Valley Girl was precipitated by my son, who has known that the 1983 comedy/romance is an unlikely but long-time favorite of mine.  Oddly enough, he and my 12 year old daughter liked the movie pretty well.

I’ve seen this movie lots and lots of times, but not for about 8 years.  It’s such an old friend.  I’ve written before about how well the characters work, not just stars Nicolas Cage and Deborah Foreman but how good Elizabeth Daily, Michael Bowen, Cameron Dye, Frederic Forrest, Colleen Camp and Heidi Hollicker all are, how the romance works amid the rather broad strokes depiction of “punks” and “Vals” overall.

And the soundtrack is just great.  Those Rhino CD’s are well worth checking out.  Always love me some Plimsouls and Josie Cotton.

This time through I was struck how the film, while not feminist per se, does tell a story that is perhaps more centralized around our lead Valley Girl, Foreman, her world, her perspective, and the perspectives of the girls in her clique.  Suzi is empowered by sex, while Loryn is perhaps used by boys for her sex, something of which she is aware.  It’s only Stacey who remains typically stereotypical about romance who is left covered in food sludge at the end.  The hero is a romantic guy, who really loves her and is willing to show it and do creative things to win her interest.  And while it comes down to a fist-fight, there are aspects of the film that are more positive toward women if not fully feminist.

I did field a number of questions about whether that was how people actually dressed back then.  Yes.  And no.

Vampire’s Kiss (1989)

Vampire's Kiss (1989) movie poster

director Robert Bierman
viewed: 09/06/2014

Probably the biggest gaping hole in my Nicolas Cage filmography has been Vampire’s Kiss.  I’m still not entirely sure why I didn’t manage to see it back in the day.  I think I might have started to watch it or something…I don’t know.  It got badly reviewed at the time.

This is from Cage’s primo period of performances: Peggy Sue Got Married (1986), Raising Arizona (1987), Moonstruck (1987), through Wild at Heart (1990) he’d shown a range of over-the-top quirkiness with character and voice in typically comedic performances.  When weird was good.  And Vampire’s Kiss is certainly of this period.

I think, if anything, the real problem is in the marketing and discussion of this film.  It’s always been described as a comedy, and certainly, Cage’s performance plays into the ludicrousness of comedy.  But the film is actually not really a comedy at all.  It’s the story of a man descending into madness and some of the horrible things he does as he sucks others down with him.

This is one of those rare but occasional “is he a vampire or is he insane?” threads of movies.  The best example of this that I can think of it George A. Romero’s remarkable Martin (1978) where the character kills and drinks blood but whether he is really a vampire or just insane is left somewhat unclear.  Vampire’s Kiss makes it more clear that Cage is delusional and that his breaks with reality are real.

He torments his secretary Maria Conchita Alonzo in terrible ways.  She has an empathy for him because she senses that he is falling apart and that in some ways he is reaching out to her.  But he’s also sadistic and cruel, ultimately physically attacking her and raping her in a moment of madness.

While Cage’s performance is funny and intentionally so, the whole of the film is really quite dark and depressing.  Cage’s weird accents for Peter Loew fluctuate, maybe from inconsistency, maybe as a way of him shifting between his personae.  In some scenes he speaks with an effete, posh-sounding tone, trying to sound intelligent and removed.  Other times he is utterly manic.

It’s an odd thing about a film, when it gets “sold” to viewers as something that it’s not.  You go in expecting certain things from it and when you don’t get them, you feel that the movie has in some ways failed.  Failed to be what you thought it was supposed to be.  Sometimes marketing does this with a film that they don’t know how to market as it is.  They figure to get people in based on one idea and recoup the costs of production.  How this film has existed for these past 25 years without proper re-classification at least, I don’t know.

I know that I’ve wanted to see it for a long time and it’s been unavailable on Netflix.  When I saw it available from one Comcast On Demand channel, I watched it despite it’s lack of letterboxing because I didn’t know when the opportunity might again arise.

I actually think that the film is pretty good.   Kind of depressing, really.  But Cage is excellent as the unhinged young publishing executive.  It’s really funny how he turns his couch into his coffin.  Truly a semi-obscure gem.

The Croods (2013)

The Croods (2013) movie poster

directors Kirk DeMicco, Chris Sanders
viewed: 03/23/2013 at AMC Metreon 16, SF, CA

I can’t say as I went in to see The Croods with much hope or expectation.  The trailers for the film showed polished animation design but a pretty stilted and heavy-handed narrative and characterization.  But as I often note, I’m happy to take the kids to see a lot of things, and I was willing enough to see The Croods.  The strange thing was that I thought it was the best big feature animation since Wreck-It Ralph (2012), another film that kind of surprised me.  Lower expectations can serve a good purpose.

The Croods are a dying breed.  Neanderthals to be exact.  And as Pangea starts to break apart, they are forced to change with the times.  And in changing with the times, they meet their biological usurper, a homo sapien.

While it’s all prehistoric, it’s also your classic family conundrum.  Nicolas Cage voices Grug, the big father figure of the film, who preaches fear and survival to his whole family.  His daughter, Eep (Emma Stone), is a teenager, dreaming of freedom and life experience.  So, the major plot points do turn on some extremely traditional ideas.

The film’s greatest strength is in its design.  The vivid world they inhabit features a hilarious menagerie of weird cross-creatures such as land whales, turtle birds, elephant giraffes, and tons more.  The incidental fauna and flora make up a vivid and clever and consistently surprising universe.  And the character designs, while at first glimpse maybe not as innovative perhaps, are actually very rich on their own.  The family is given clever physical traits, uniting them.  And Eep in a lot of ways is as beautifully rendered and realized as Princess Merida from Brave (2012), which got a lot more attention.  The Neanderthal family all have interesting, quirky stances and movement, and truth be told, the whole of the film struck me as really pretty good.

For someone who sees as much children-oriented animated feature films as I do, I think I’m relatively cynical.  But I liked The Croods.  Grug, Ugga (Catherine Keener), and Gran (Cloris Leachman) aren’t the most interesting of characters.  Gran actually is a pretty annoying cliche.  But Nicolas Cage, whose incongruous voice doesn’t exactly sound like it should be coming from a caveman, has enough to work with to make the father-daughter-boyfriend scenario funny and amusing.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not epic or necessarily great, it’s just a beautifully designed, clever, enjoyable computer animated film in an ever-more crowded field of weak fare.

Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance (2012)

Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance (2012) movie poster

directors Mark Neveldine, Brian Taylor
viewed: 07/22/2012

After having to think a lot about The Dark Knight Rises (2012), it’s kind of a relief to use so few brain cells to consider a different 2012 superhero film, Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance.

Sadly, it’s also a disappointment, not that anticipation or expectations were particularly high.  But mixing the over-acting goofiness of Nicolas Cage with the over-the-top insanity editing and directing of the team Neveldine/Taylor who brought us the koo-koo Crank (2006) and Crank: High Voltage (2009), the potential for madcap, grinding chaotic nonsense, set to pulse-pounding beats and hyperactive cuts and visuals…seemed a match made in…well, maybe not heaven but somewhere.

Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance has its moments.  Maybe more than Ghost Rider (2007), maybe fewer.  Cage chews the scenery, revels in delivering some of the pithier lines like, “So, You’re the Devil’s babymama.”  He’s having fun, so it seems.  He’s still the most entertaining thing in the film, though that designation is less and less of a challenge in many of the films he’s been in lately.

Actually, I was rather struck by how much the plot seemed vaguely like that of Drive Angry (2011), another deal with the devil in which a child must be saved.  Drive Angry was probably more fun.

I was struck by what a palette-cleanser this kind of nonsense can be.

Trespass (2011)

Trespass (2011) movie poster

director Joel Schumacher
viewed: 02/04/2012

“And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive them that trespass against us” – Matthew 6:12

We can probably forgive Joel Schumacher, Nicolas Cage, Nicole Kidman and co. for this Trespass.  It’s bad but only on the down slope from mediocre.  It’s not an embarrassment.  For Schumacher, that would be Batman & Robin (1997).  For Cage, it would be any number of movies that he’s made in the last 10-15 years.  For Kidman, …her marriage to Tom Cruise?

The plot of Trespass is sort of like someone who saw Michael Haneke’s deconstrcted thriller Funny Games (1997) (or its American re-make of 2008) and thought, “Wow, if it wasn’t deconstructed, this would make a great thriller!  We just need to Hollywood it up a bit more!  Or maybe a lot!”

Rich family in an isolated mansion get held prisoner, not by two young prep school thugs, but by a group of thieves.  Supposedly, Cage’s character, the family patriarch, has been squirreling away money while their financial world is falling around them, unbeknownst to the family, but the kidnappers have been eyeing him and know he’s got diamonds and money.  With guns to their heads, Cage still won’t let the villains have the combination to the safe.  He tries to make a deal.  And then there is the subplot of the younger brother of the gang who scoped the house and has the hots for Kidman (and did he or didn’t he have an affair with her at the same time?)  And the crack-smoking girlfriend. And the thug from the mob.  And of course, people are going to die.

The thing is that it never really makes sense what Cage’s motivation is.  By the end, it really doesn’t seem to make exact sense.  But it’s not really worth quibbling about.

The film isn’t successful at capturing potential zeitgeist either.  Theoretically, this family, while not necessarily “part of the 1%” that the Occupy movement has defined, is certainly richer than the average upper middle class family.  They are the haves.  Or are they just living on the razor’s edge as well, is their life a facade?  There is class implied that the criminals are certainly not of that same ilk, but rather want what the rich guys have.  And at the end, when it all goes up in flames, and the family unit, tested and tried, hangs together in the face of crime and torture, what exactly is the message?

Well, the only reason I watched this is because of my Nicolas Cage thing.  It’s not as campy as his more entertaining bad movies.  It’s a shabby attempt at a more mainstream, adult thriller.  But it is a shabby attempt.


The Sorcerer’s Apprentice

The Sorcerer's Apprentice (2010) movie poster

(2010) director John Turteltaub
viewed: 11/20/2011

File under: Nicolas Cage, teen action films, Michael Bay explosions.

Though I’ve been writing about Nicolas Cage for several years and have been an admitted, though now mitigated, fan, it’s only been in the last year or so that I’ve committed to the concept that I’ll watch any and all of his films.   Without the kids’ interest, this might have taken a lot longer to get to, but this one appealed to both of them, though to Felix more than Clara.

I haven’t tried to explain Nicolas Cage to them.  I have a hard enough time explaining it to sympathetic adults.  And though the kids do understand irony, I think it’s a bit hard for them to understand a guilty pleasure such as Cage is to me.

Based extremely loosely on “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” sequence from Fantasia (1940), which was an animated interpretation of the musical piece itself, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is more of a stab into the  Percy Jackson or Harry Potter franchises, these magical fantasy films about a loner kid who discovers that he has a connection to some ancient, super-power magical history plus adventures.  In that sense, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is more original, not adapted from an already popular book series.  But original is a highly relative term in Hollywood, especially in the realm of films for the kid market.

The film opens with its weakest point, a flashback to over 1000 years ago into a complicated back-story including Cage and Monica Bellucci and Alfred Molina, three magicians fighting the evil Morgana Le Fay, winding up with all but Cage entrapped in a babushka doll, awaiting the birth of the “prime Merlinian” who will be able to defeat Le Fay when the time is right.

Flash forward to 2000 (interestingly 10 years prior to the film’s release…remember when 2000 was the future, not the past?) and a boy gets pulled into a strange shop, and an unchanged Cage awaits, realizes that the boy is his long-awaited ‘prime Merlinian” and is about to begin teaching him when Molina’s villain is released, only to be recaptured again by Cage in a cage that will hold them both for 10 years.

Flash forward again.  See?  It takes a long while, not only a long while, but a complicated while to get to the point at which the actor who plays the apprentice in the present is actually onscreen.  Now he is played by the dweebish/cool Jay Baruchel, who talks like Christian Slater but looks a lot nerdier.  He’s had a tough life as a science geek with issues that his prior experience with Cage 10 years earlier led him to.

The adventure ensues on the wings of lot of Michael Bay explosions and action, which makes for entertainment of a certain ilk.   Really, it’s not half-bad.  It’s hardly dire.  Though it’s also not a Cage masterpiece of either irony nor true quality.  It’s still probably one of his better films from last year.

Felix did enjoy it.  Clara didn’t pay a lot of attention.  And I was able to scratch another Cage film from my list and continue my pursuit of his entire oeuvre.

Season of the Witch

The Season of the Witch (2011) movie poster

(2011) director Dominic Sena
viewed: 08/17/2011

This may indeed be the worst Nicolas Cage film to date.  And that is saying something.

It’s Uwe Boll bad.

The film I kept thinking of during it was Boll’s In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale (2007), which also featured actor Ron Perlman, who is Cage’s burly side-kick in this Dark Ages adventure.  Perlman is no stranger to super-low-budget, direct-to-video fantasy/sci-fi garbage.  He’s also appeared in Mutant Chronicles (2008) and I Sell the Dead (2008).  He’s good and grizzled-looking and buff enough to fit into these types of films as the older, cynical, seen-it-all kind of grouse.  He’s cast to type.  And he apparently has no shame about appearing in bad movies.  But that might have been a sign to Cage that he’s seriously verging on direct-to-video films himself at this point.

The effects are cheap and crappy, creating this Dark Ages scenery and battle sequences, grand scopes with the quality of no budget.

Cage and Perlman are two crusading knights, trouncing happily into battle in the name of the Lord and drinking and merry-making in the many afterglows.  That is, until one raid on a castle begets only women and children as their victims, and they up and quit to Crusades to wander aimlessly abroad.

Little are they aware that the Plague has swept Europe and women everywhere are being denounced as witches and killed.  They are given the quest of taking one particular witch to a monastery for trial and probable death.  They accept because they feel she may not be a real witch (and she reminds Cage of the accusing look of one of the women that he had slain.)  The zealous priest makes them even more suspicious as she tries to curry favor with everyone and accuse the priest of villainies.

Cage as a 14th Century knight is hard enough to swallow, but there are other similarly mis-cast characters who suck any potential realism from this nonsense.  And for a Cage fan, there are no great moments of flair, uniqueness, whimsy, or insanity, only noble duties and broadsword swinging.

I posit that this film ranks right up against The Wicker Man (2006) as the worst Nicolas Cage film.  The Wicker Man, however, has some real weirdness to it that offers more potential at camp and comedy.  Season of the Witch is the kind of film that is amazing to have seen a theatrical release.  It’s cheap and worst-off, it’s pretty uninteresting.

I’ll be waiting for Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance (2012) for more of the bad/good Cage films.  That one looks to be pretty hilarious.

Drive Angry

Drive Angry (2011) movie poster

(2011) director Patrick Lussier
viewed: 07/31/2011

Ah, Nicolas Cage.  I am not alone in recognizing this amazing level to which he has risen in recent years.  It’s a level of sublimity navigated by an actor taking leading roles in any number of dodgy, outrageous movies, presumably largely for the paycheck, but who loves to amp himself up for each film and relishing the chewing of scenery.

It’s not some snooty, high-minded calling of craft.  These roles and films are far from Oscar bait.  But he makes these films worth seeing.  I often think to myeself, “How crazy is he going to get in this one?”  The plot lines and film titles tell you about all you need to know.  All I needed to hear was Nicolas Cage in “Drive Angry” and I was in.  It didn’t even matter what the film was about.  (Actually, it was Drive Angry 3-D in the theaters, part of this hopefully short-lived revival of 3-D movie-making.  But frankly, it kinda suggested further the potential silliness.)

Drive Angry is a more self-aware action film with supernatural overtones.  Cage plays John Milton (Paradise Lost reference, anyone?), who is driving angrily after the devil-worshipping preacher and his clan who killed Cage’s daughter and kidnapped his infant granddaughter.  They want to sacrifice the baby to Satan.  He meets up with tough girl, Piper (played by Amber Heard), and tracks down the villains.  He is pursued by William Fichtner, who refers to himself as The Accountant, who is rather obviously outed as “supernatural” pursuer of the angry driving Cage.

Written by Michael De Luca and directed by Patrick Lussier, the team behind My Bloody Valentine (2009) seem to  be having a lot more fun here.  The film has many moments, and Cage gets a number of catch-phrase-worthy lines.  You almost wonder how many of those he crafted himself, as he is known to do quite often in films.  It’s all knowingly over-the-top and teeming with camp, a kind of wink-wink-nudge-nudge self-awareness that would never have existed in an action film even back in the 1980’s.  While it’s possibly an aspect of post-modernism that whether a film is referencing directly to other films or simply acknowledging conventions by over-amping them, there is a trend in action films/horror films of late to ride high on being “over the top” in any number of ways.

Is it a good film?  I don’t know.  Not really.  On DVD, without the 3-D glasses, there are a number of obvious shots that were meant to exploit that effect, so knowingly throwing things at the camera lens and the audiences’ laps.  I guess the film isn’t quite as clever as it would like to be, with its John Milton references and tongue in cheek moments.  Actually, though that knowing irony adds levels of extremity to some scenes (in one Cage never stops the act of sex while he shoots down a bunch of would-be pursuers), it almost makes you yearn for a more earnest story, something that really believed in itself, rather than letting you know that the film-makers are in on all the jokes.

It is a fine example of a 2011 Nicolas Cage film, whatever this era of his career will come to be defined as.  Something for cult fans, there is surely a cult of Nicolas Cage, right?  I can’t be the only one.  With the weird array of other coming films (and others that I still need to see), he’s developing an entertaining grab bag of an oeuvre.  And for me, I say, keep ’em coming.

Raising Arizona

Raising Arizona (1987) movie poster

(1987) directors Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
viewed: 01/01/11

I’d been sort of toying with the notion of watching Raising Arizona with the kids for a year or so.  It’s PG-13, but I couldn’t recall anything overtly offensive about it.  Not that it’s a kids movie or anything, but it’s so visual, so funny, and it’s got a cute baby in it.  Still, it wasn’t until New Years Day 2011, getting rained out on a trip downtown, stranding us at my house with nothing really to do, that the opportunity really offered itself to us.

I’d picked up a copy of the film when a local video store was going out of business.  Since I’d first seen it in 1987, on its initial release, it was pretty much a favorite.  Really, it’s part of the core essence of getting into the Coen brothers’ films was all about.   But in ’87, I think that the main reason I went to see it was for Nicolas Cage, who was still at that point an unironic favorite of mine.  And frankly, Raising Arizona is definitely one of his best movies.

I had actually sort of considered taking Felix at least to True Grit (2010), also PG-13.  But when it came down to it, introducing the kids to the Coen brothers is, though possibly premature, nothing to be ashamed of.

Raising Arizona is actually one of those weird films that started out as a cult film (it wasn’t all that well known in 1987) but probably between home video and cable television, is one of those pretty universally appreciated films.  Am I right about this?  Or am I projecting?

From the terrific yodelling and banjo soundtrack, to the amazingly cartoonish cinematography by Barry Sonenfeld, to the trailer-park, well-spoken vernacular in which all the characters speak, the Coens tapped into perhaps their most successfully hilarious film.  Cage and Holly Hunter, who meet in the opening voice-over narrated introduction, he H.I. McDunnough, small-time criminal (who robs liquor stores with ammunition-free guns) and Hunter as Ed, the correctional officer who photographed him, are the young couple who would do right if only a child would come to them.  When Ed turns out to be “barren”, they concoct a plan to steal one of a set of quintuplets born to a local furniture maven and his wife, figuring that “they have more than they can handle”.

Throw in John Goodman and William Forsythe as Gale and Evelle Snoats, former cell-mates of Cage’s, who “release themselves on their own recognazaence, the whole thing is a mixture of madcap, comic, and sublime.

Really, my only complaint ever about the film was the figure of the biker of the apocalypse, which while somewhat fitting, giving the film its real villain, always felt a lot more forced and concocted than the rest of the characters in the film.  It’s just that most of the film is so pitch-perfect, so verbally and physically funny, that this one (while not sour note) is the only thing that just never felt quite right.  I guess that I’ve gotten over that more over the years.  It didn’t stick out as much as it used to to me.

Actually, the kids really enjoyed it.  As far as the appropriate-ness level, well, outside of a baker’s dozen curse-words that seem to show up a lot less in the last two decades of movies that might be attended by children, it really doesn’t have anything too untoward.   Though there is the wife-swapping gag too.  Luckily I didn’t get posed the questions around that, though I’m sure that it didn’t make a lot of sense to them.

Frankly, I think I’d have to rank Raising Arizona as one of my favorite films.  Perhaps that situates me in with the mainstream, perhaps not.  Perhaps I don’t care.