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 asthmathic 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 M├Ądchen 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.