Friday 31 March 2023

Face/Off (1997)

Director: John Woo
Writer: Mike Werb and Michael Colleary
Stars: John Travolta, Nicolas Cage, Joan Allen and Allesandro Nivola

Index: The First Thirty.

Well, it’s been a fun journey through Cage’s First Thirty films and it’s been an educational one for me. Watching him grow through good and bad movies, as well as good and bad acting decisions, I’ve gained a newfound appreciation for his talent. Following these up with a look at The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent was a sheer joy. So much more there makes sense to me now than would have done otherwise.

And what a way to end a First Thirty! I have seen Face/Off before, because I’m a fan of John Woo’s Hong Kong movies and this was the first time he had enough creative control to bring that high octane style to Hollywood. Watching afresh, decades after my last viewing, it holds up wonderfully.

As you might imagine from the poster, this is all about two people who want nothing out of life more than to stop each other. Everyone else is only in the film to be a human prop for one or both to use in that epic battle.

John Travolta is Special Agent Sean Archer who’s shot during the opening credits, while riding a carousel with his son, Michael, who’s killed with the same bullet. That bullet is fired from a sniper rifle by Castor Troy, who isn’t so much a criminal as a professional supervillain who should be locked up in Arkham Asylum. Needless to say, Troy is played by Nicolas Cage with every intention to go full on gonzo.

Wednesday 29 March 2023

The Secret of Magic Island (1956)

Director: Jean Tourane
Writers: Louise de Vilmorin, Jean Tourane and Richard Lavigne
Star: Robert Lamoureux

Index: Weird Wednesdays.

Sometimes tracking down the weirdest movies of all time takes some effort, which is why I’m watching this 1956 French-Italian co-production in a VHS rip that’s been dubbed into Swedish and fan subbed into English. I have to applaud the dedication needed for the former, even though there’s no dialogue and it’s always easier to dub a narration than the words of a dozen characters. I thank Dr. Death at Cinemageddon for the latter, even though my streaming device wouldn’t pick them up on my TV so I had to read them on my laptop while the film was playing. Such are the lengths to which I must go to in order to report on this cinematic insanity for your edification and pleasure! And talking of insanity, there’s plenty of it because this picture is entirely acted by animals. And no, I don’t mean animals playing animals interacting with humans; you’re not going to see Lassie in a book like this. All these characters could have been played by regular human actors, just as we might expect. But they aren’t. They’re played by animals. Because.

And we get to see a whole heck of a lot of them during the first half of the movie, because nothing happens beyond regular sort of folk going about their business in a regular sort of town, merely one sized to appropriate levels for the cast. It’s a damn good model and it’s easily the best thing about the movie. So we follow the postman as he delivers the mail, just as a human might do it, except that Gustaf is a duck. His cantankerous wife is a duck too, which is probably a good thing. The barber is a fox named, I kid you not, Foxy. The tavern has a dog for a bartender, who pours wine better than some human bartenders I know. It’s not merely the model town that’s immediately impressive; it’s the props as well because this is a well equipped model. There’s a pool table in the bar. The fireplace has a fire in it. The goose drives around town in an actual moving vehicle. And, amazing as it might seem, we fall into this logic because it’s never commented on. Within the framework of this story, it isn’t worthy of mention.

Tuesday 28 March 2023

Con Air (1997)

Director: Simon West
Writer: Scott Rosenberg
Stars: Nicolas Cage, John Cusack, John Malkovich, Steve Buscemi, Ving Rhames, Colm meaney, Mykelti Williamson and Rachel Ticotin

Index: The First Thirty.

What I like the most about Con Air, a picture I should have seen many years ago but never got round to until now, is that Cage still isn’t the action hero in the way we expect. It seems like every time he gets the opportunity to be a straight forward action hero, he resists.

In The Rock he was a kinda sorta action hero but he was also the nerdy dude playing second fiddle to tough guy Sean Connery. Here, he’s a bona fide action hero at the very outset, but it doesn’t last and he takes an utterly differently approach for the bulk of the film.

He’s Cameron Poe and, to keep a trend alive from The Rock, his wife is pregnant. He’s a U.S. Army Ranger, who looks great in uniform for his honourable discharge and return home to Tricia in Mobile, Alabama. And he doesn’t get into the bar fight some idiot wants him to get into, which makes her happy because she was hoping the army would take that guy out of him. Apparently it did.

Except this idiot and his two drunk buddies decide to jump him in the parking lot, with a knife. He responds, totally in self defence, but he leaves one of them dead on the ground. The others skip with the knife, the judge calls his hands deadly weapons and suddenly he’s in a cell serving seven to ten years. He watches his daughter grow up in photos, he learns Spanish and he exercises a heck of a lot.

Monday 27 March 2023

Souls for Sale (1923)

Director: Rupert Hughes
Writer: Rupert Hughes, from his own novel
Stars: Eleanor Boardman, Frank Mayo, Richard Dix, Mae Busch, Barbara La Marr, Lew Cody and Thirty-Five Famous Stars

I took this viewing of Souls for Sale as a kind of test. I first saw it on TCM in 2006 and failed to recognise many of the “thirty-five famous stars” that it boasts alongside its leads. I’m far more versed in silent cinema in 2023, so I was eager to see if that would hold true today. To my discredit, it does, but many of these names drifted quickly away from the limelight.

It’s a Hollywood movie all about Hollywood movies, an attempt to defend an industry that had so recently endured so many scandals: the overdose of Olive Thomas, the Fatty Arbuckle trials and the murder of film director William Desmond Taylor. Those three happened in the three years between 1920 and 1922. Novelist Rupert Hughes did what he could to calm the backlash down in his 1922 novel, Souls for Sale, and again in his own adaptation of it in 1923, a large pool of talent lending their names to his cause in a string of cameos.

Of course, it’s a rags to riches tale of a young lady who finds her way to Hollywood, onto the screen and into the hearts of millions. In this take on that cliché, the star was at least played by a nobody, Eleanor Boardman, who had won a contract with Goldwyn Pictures, the G in the future MGM, in a New Faces of 1922 contest.

Sunday 26 March 2023

The Rock (1996)

Director: Michael Bay
Writers: David Weisberg and Douglas Cook, from a story by David Weisberg
Stars: Sean Connery, Nicolas Cage, Ed Harris, Michael Biehn, William Forsythe, David Morse, John Spencer and John C. McGinley

Index: The First Thirty.

Here’s another movie I’ve missed out on for a long time because I thought I’d seen it. That proved not to be the case and I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed a Michael Bay movie this much, not that it converts me into a fan. After all, the talent he had to work with here guarantees an interesting film at the very least.

And thank goodness for that because it’s as overblown as we might expect even before we get past the opening credits. There are lots of uniforms and medals and a sweeping score by Hans Zimmer. If we didn’t already know that this was a Michael Bay movie, we wouldn’t be at all surprised when his name shows up.

It’s raining through all of that and it’s still raining as Brigadier General Francis Hummel and his men break into a naval depot, murder American soldiers and wander off with fifteen M55 rockets loaded with VX gas. We find out what that means when the sixteenth drops, a toxic ball bursts and the man who doesn’t get out before they lock the doors melts horribly.

Ed Harris is spot on as Hummel, an excellent example of a villain who’s the hero of his own story. He’s pissed that he’s worked numerous secret missions for the U.S. government and a whole slew of his men were left behind, their families not even compensated for their loss. And so, to highlight this in a way nobody can ignore, he takes over Alcatraz and points the rockets at San Francisco. $100m in forty hours or he’ll start pressing the red button. And, as Dr. Stanley Goodspeed tells us, one rocket will kill sixty to seventy thousand people. “It’s one of those things we wish we could disinvent.”

Saturday 25 March 2023

An Angel for Satan (1966)

Director: Camillo Mastrocinque
Writers: Giuseppe Mangione and Camillo Mastrocinque, from a story of Luigi Emmanuele
Stars: Barbara Steele, Anthony Steffen and Betty Delon with Mario Brega and Claudio Gora

Index: 2023 Centennials.

Not all people important to film are stars. There are character actors who we see over and over again, so often that many of them become like old friends, even if we don’t recall their names. We could call that memory lapse the Al Leong Syndrome, after one of the omnipresent supporting actors of American action movies. Alternatively, we could call it the Mario Brega Syndrome, after the Italian actor who’s so instantly recognisable in so many spaghetti westerns and other Italian films, and he’s who I’m watching this for, because he was born in Rome a hundred years ago today. Before he found the cinema, he was known as Florestano Brega, who worked as a butcher, and was far less famous than his father, the distance runner Primo Brega, who was twice Italian champion at 5,000 metres and once at 10,000 metres. The young Florestano, with his huge frame and menacing features, was too perfect for the screen to avoid it for long and, after one appearance in 1947, became a regular thug, bully and gang member from 1958 onwards.

While he’s best known for westerns, not least the “Man with No Name” trilogy by Sergio Leone, in which he plays three characters, Chico in A Fistful of Dollars, Nino in For a Few Dollars More and Corporal Wallace in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, he tended to end up cast as a senior enough heavy to get lines but not senior enough to get much screen time, even if he had become popular enough to land high up credits. Case in point: Death Rides a Horse, a 1967 spaghetti western I watched before this film for his centennial, where he gets the third credit after the film’s two imported stars, Lee Van Cleef and John Phillip Law. However, while he’s memorable, he doesn’t have much opportunity to shine, and he’s not one of the core characters who are sought in the central quest for vengeance. He has a lot more to do in this film, a black and white gothic horror from a year earlier, with the timeless Barbara Steele in a weird leading double role, so it seemed like an easy choice to remember him and his long career, with eighty credits over six decades.

Wednesday 22 March 2023

Leaving Las Vegas (1995)

Director: Mike Figgis
Writer: Mike Figgis, based on the novel by John O’Brien
Stars: Nicolas Cage, Elizabeth Shue and Julien Sands

Index: The First Thirty.

It’s only been three years and six movies but Cage is back in Vegas. Things are different this time. He lost a girl in Honeymoon in Vegas and had to scramble to win her back. Here, he has nobody in the world when he arrives, with the plan of literally drinking himself to death, but he finds one anyway, in a hooker called Sera. I should quickly add that, whatever that sounds like, this is not a cutesy romcom.

Cage is Ben Sanderson and, between bottles, he’s a Hollywood screenwriter. We don’t know if he’s good at it or not but he’s very good at being drunk. He’s lost his wife and he can’t remember if she left because he drinks or if he drinks because she left. He’s a complete wreck.

By the time he loses his job, fifteen minutes into the picture, the opening credits show up and we follow Ben to Vegas. At this point, we have no idea why he’s a drunk and we don’t learn anything else in the hour and a half still to come. He burned everything before leaving. There’s nothing to tie him back to his former life and, if there is, then the drink will drown it all out.

From the very beginning, this is a peach of a performance from Cage. I’m hardly the biggest fan of the Academy Awards and know just how much politics goes into them, but he deserved his Oscar win. What makes this film so worthy is that it isn’t just him delivering a stunner of a performance; Elizabeth Shue matches him. I can’t say that I particularly enjoyed the movie, because it’s really not an enjoyable film, but I thoroughly appreciated it.

Sunday 19 March 2023

Kiss of Death (1995)

Director: Barbet Schroeder
Writers: Eleazar Lipsky, based on the 1947 screenplay by Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer
Stars: David Caruso, Kathryn Erbe, Philip Baker Hall, Anthony Heald, Helen Hunt, Samuel L. Jackson, Michael Rapaport, Ving Rhames, Stanley Tucci and Nicolas Cage

Index: The First Thirty.

Taking a break from the nice guy roles that he took in each of his three 1994 films, Cage is back to being the bad guy: Little Junior Brown, an asthmatic psychopath who takes over his father’s crime empire. As Kiss of Death is a loose remake of the 1947 movie with Victor Mature, he’s not really playing Richard Widmark’s role of Tommy Udo and therefore has an easy task bringing something memorably new to it.

Fortunately, Barbet Schroeder doesn’t give him the leeway that Christopher Coppola gave him two years earlier in Deadfall, so he’s good here, every potentially outrageous quirk very believable. His choice of beard reminds us of a bulked up John Travolta, but his inhaler gives him a little vulnerability, even if he happens to bench press strippers for fun.

The star of the picture is David Caruso, who was fresh from 26 episodes of NYPD Blue but a full seven years away from his signature role, sunglasses-wielding Horatio Caine. I’ve never been a fan of Caruso because everything that he does is a pose and that holds true here. He’s initially tasked with acting opposite Michael Rapaport, but Rapaport brings Ronnie Gannon to life as a cheap thug, while Caruso poses his way through his scenes as Jimmy Kilmartin.

He’s an ex-con trying to go clean and cousin Ronnie screws that up for him, bringing him onto a job driving a car transporter full of hot cars to the docks. The cops are there waiting and that’s another stretch inside for Jimmy, whose wife Bev is in AA and whose daughter Corinna is a baby. Them’s the breaks, dude.

Thursday 16 March 2023

Trapped in Paradise (1994)

Director: George Gallo
Writer: George Gallo
Stars: Nicolas Cage, Jon Lovitz and Dana Carvey

Index: The First Thirty.

I must say that I had reservations going into this film and they were reinforced by some of the early scenes, but it won me over in the end as a film not as stupid as it looks and with a lot more heart. No, it’s not great. It’s a goddamn Christmas movie, for Pete’s sakes, but it’s not as bad as Birdy, let alone Zandalee or Deadfall. It doesn’t deserve the low ratings it has.

What’s more, instead of a new stylistic shift, it turns out to be yet another example of Cage doing good work as a screen nice guy, not only one of the three thieves who try to rob a bank in Paradise, Pennsylvania, but also a romantic lead in a subtle romance with Mädchen Amick.

He’s wondering if he’s a nice guy as the film begins, because someone drops a wallet in the busy New York Christmas rush and it’s kicked around until it ends up in his hands. He thinks obviously about doing the right thing instead of just taking the money. After all, the owner’s photos show that he has kids, so it’s probably cash for gifts. He tells a priest that he sent it back, but he lies to that priest about how long it’s been since his last confession, so we can choose whether to believe him or not.

What we can be sure of is that he’s Bill Firpo and he manages a restaurant in New York. Oh, and he has a pair of brothers, Dave and Alvin, who are being paroled early because the jails are overcrowded. And, get this, they’re played by Jon Lovitz and Dana Carvey, which does not instil confidence. I like both of them and they have a lot of talent, but I didn’t expect them to co-star in a comedy as Cage’s brothers. One of these things is not like the others, right?

Monday 13 March 2023

It Could Happen to You (1994)

Director: Andrew Bergman
Writer: Jane Anderson
Stars: Nicolas Cage, Bridget Fonda, Rosie Perez, Wendell Pierce, Isaac Hayes, Seymour Cassel, Stanley Tucci, Richard Jenkins and Red Buttons

Index: The First Thirty.

Let’s point out up front that this isn’t close to my kind of movie. I’m not a fan of romcoms and I’m not a fan of feelgood movies. Had I not seen any of Cage’s First Thirty before starting this runthrough, I might expect to be drawn to a thriller like Face/Off, a neo-noir like Red Rock West and a no budget indie comedy like Never on Tuesday. I wouldn’t expect to like this.

But I did. I had a blast with it, even though I could write the entire script in my head from the poster and the synopsis. There isn’t really a surprising moment to be found, even though writer Jane Anderson tries a little to find one, but that doesn’t matter. The sentimentality is on the nose throughout and the leads are as inherently likeable as they could be. It simply works, even on viewers who don’t expect to be worked on by feelgood romcoms.

We’re introduced to Cage’s character, a cop called Charlie Lang, by Isaac Hayes, narrating like he’s a one man Greek chorus called Angel. Charlie’s a good cop and I mean a saintly cop. He helps the neighbourhood kids with baseball swings. He delivers a baby on a bus. And when he sees a blind man halfway across a street, he carries him the rest of the way. He’s literally New York’s finest.

Saturday 11 March 2023

Guarding Tess (1994)

Director: Hugh Wilson
Writers: Hugh Wilson and P. J. Torokvei
Stars: Nicolas Cage, Shirley MacLaine, Austin Pendleton, Edward Albert, James Rebhorn and Richard Griffiths

Index: The First Thirty.

Deadfall taught me once again, not that I was in need of a reminder, that unrestrained Cage is wildly inconsistent and often acutely painful but Guarding Tess taught me once again that a Cage bristling against massive restraints that a plot imposes upon him is often impressive.

He’s Douglas Chesnic, a secret service agent but Guarding Tess is far from an action flick. It’s a light character-driven drama—except for the third act, when it forgets what it was doing to ratchet up the tension in what could be a CBS primetime show—with the two lead characters a new take on the odd couple.

That’s because the other one is Tess Carlisle, widow of a dead president, and she’s played by Shirley MacLaine. He’s done a professional job to protect her over the past three years, a job that he’s hated with a passion, and now plans to return to Washington to move into a more active duty. She’s not at all ready to let him go, which means that he’s sent right back again, because she has the current president, the VP under her husband, wrapped around her little finger. His periodic politely angry phone calls to Chesnic are the best thing about the movie.

Initially, the results are awkward, because it couldn’t be any other way. We expect to be on Chesnic’s side because he’s doing his very best in the line of duty but we also expect to be on Tess’s side, because she was FLOTUS and she’s played by Shirley MacLaine, who we’d root for if she was playing Satan incarnate.

Tuesday 7 March 2023

Deadfall (1993)

Director: Christopher Coppola
Writer: Christopher Coppola and Nick Vallelonga
Stars: Michael Biehn, Sarah Trigger, Nicolas Cage, James Coburn, Peter Fonda, Charlie Sheen and Talia Shire

Index: The First Thirty.

Oh dear. Oh deary dear. From Red Rock West, an underseen gem of a film noir that you owe it to yourself to seek out and devour, Nicolas Cage then acted for his brother, Christopher Coppola, in an attempt at a film noir that falls as flat as a pancake. It’s outrageously bad and, of all the countless bad things about it, Cage somehow manages to be easily the worst.

Because there is no god, he ended up acting in a prequel/sequel focused specifically on his character, but that was in 2017 when he had to take every role anyone would pay him to take. This was 1993 and he had no excuse.

It’s a Michael Biehn movie, made the same year he made Tombstone, and he’s described it to Ain’t It Cool News as one of the five worst films that he’s appeared in. It’s so bad that “I always have this mental Freudian block and I can never remember the name of it.” I’d say he’s lucky. The only reason to see this is to see just how off the rails Cage gets. It was all him too. Biehn pointed out, “That was Nic Cage undirected, because his brother directed him and I think he just said ‘Nic, do whatever you want.’” I can totally believe that suggestion.

Saturday 4 March 2023

Red Rock West (1993)

Director: John Dahl
Writers: John and Rick Dahl
Stars: Nicolas Cage, Dennis Hopper, Lara Flynn Boyle, Timothy Carhart, Dan Shor and J. T. Walsh

Index: The First Thirty.

Here’s a movie that surprised me. I can see why it didn’t succeed in the marketplace, as it plays very much like a film festival film, as one producer apparently suggested it should be, a suggestion the studio completely ignored and sold to cable instead.

It’s an odd mix of genres, unfolding rather like a cross between a western and a neo-noir, with Cage as a drifter called Michael Williams who keeps trying but keeps failing to leave the town of Red Rock, which is somewhere twelve hundred miles from Odessa, Texas. It was shot here in Arizona, in Willcox, Sonoita and Elgin, but it’s meant to represent Montana, I think.

It doesn’t really matter, because it’s a sort of Twilight Zone town, one that will take anyone in just like that but not spit you back out again until the story is done with you. And it takes a while for this story to be done with Cage.

He’s in the vicinity for a job, but he doesn’t get it because of a gammy leg, so asks the gas station owner, who he conspicuously chooses not to rob, where else he could try and he tells him Red Rock.

So he wanders into Wayne’s Place, where he is immediately mistaken for Lyle from Dallas, a hitman Wayne hired to kill his wife, Suzanne. The irony is that the cops will just pin it on a drifter—you know, like Williams—but it pays $5,000 up front with $5,000 more when the job is complete.

Wednesday 1 March 2023

Amos & Andrew (1993)

Director: E. Max Frye
Writer: E. Max Frye
Stars: Nicolas Cage, Samuel L. Jackson, Michael Lerner, Margaret Colin, Giancarlo Esposito, Bob Balaban, Brad Dourif and Dabney Coleman

Index: The First Thirty.

Yeah, this didn’t look promising! Knowingly going into a project with a title like this firmly suggests poor judgement and, while it plays a lot better than I expected that it would, it’s a wildly ill-advised film.

For those young enough to not see the issue, there was a massively popular radio show that ran from 1928 to 1960 called Amos ’n’ Andy. The characters were all black, but it was created, written and acted by two white men. Needless to say, it was protested before it ever made the jump to television in the fifties, which finally ended under NAACP pressure. At least the TV actors were black but the voices were still the white creators. While this was an important radio show, it isn’t remembered fondly.

So here’s a 1993 riff on Amos ’n’ Andy, where Amos is white and Andy is black and the whole film is a look at American race relations. Done as a comedy. OK then...

Nicolas Cage is Amos Odell, an idiotic white thief who starts the film in jail on a rich resort island in Massachusetts because he somehow mistook it for Canada. His first action is to get his handcuffs removed so he can make his one phone call. He orders takeout.

Samuel L. Jackson is Andrew Sterling, a rich black playwright—the best joke may be that he won a Pulitzer for Yo Brother, Where Art Thou—and he starts the film looking at the very same island over the side of a ferry. He’s just bought a holiday home on the island and he’s heading there for a first night in his new property.