Monthly Archives: February 2013

My Buddy is a Cage – Stolen (2012)

Nic Cage Stolen safe

We may have reached a new precedent in our magical journey through Sir Nicolas Cage’s oeuvre. There’s the strange hairstyles and trademark spasms, and Cage’s career has already spanned the breadth of romantic comedies and generic actioners to dramatic powerhouses and zany genre pictures. But this might mark the first instance where a co-star is actively attempting to out-Cage… Nic Cage. For the effort, my nonexistent hat’s off to you, Josh Lucas. I’m putting it back on after this, though.

Stolen might be proof that Simon West can’t direct his actors. Much of Con Air’s success rested on the shoulders of loud character work — the Malkoviches and Buscemis — and whatever southern-fried accent Cage worked up owes little to West’s direction, since by comparison Cage contributes so little here to ex-bank robber Will Montgomery. West does have a knack for competent action and Stolen gets an OK start with a 20 minute “one last job” that sees Montgomery abandoned by his rag-tag partners in crime (Malin Akerman, M.C. Gainey and Josh Lucas) and busted, much to the delight of a vengeful detective (Danny Huston). If this sounds like a mad-libbed action script, good. There’s so much routine to Stolen’s plotting that it forgets to include motivations to drive anything forward. First, Lucas and Cage are old pals; 8 years later, Lucas is missing a foot and covered in meth scabs, their friendship overtaken by an obsession with getting his share from that botched job. So he kidnaps Cage’s daughter (Sami Gayle), tosses her in the trunk of his cab, and totes her around the suburbs of Louisiana.

It’s an adequate hook until one realizes all the opportunities Montgomery skips over in favor of committing to Stolen’s premise. It strains the film’s faith in the audience that any kind of glue between Cage and his estranged daughter would be enough to sustain a 98 minute car chase. At one point, Cage hijacks a cabbie’s GPS at gunpoint in an attempt to track down Lucas’ car. We know the feds aren’t likely to believe such a ludicrous plan from the mouth of an ex-con, but couldn’t Cage have just ordered the cabbie to call this one in? Authorities might take news of a creepy one-legged asshole more seriously if the head of a cab company phones in a tip, right? Cage skips all that and re-enlists the help of Akerman for one last “one last job” to get Lucas’ $10 million. Disappearing completely for nearly an hour, Akerman might have been cast simply as an attractive bookend where she risks her quiet retirement to help with a very dumb idea. Stolen’s rampant stupidity is contagious, too. Both Huston and underling Mark Valley play the stoogiest of any law enforcement characters in recent memory, with little to no foresight in their “tactical” methods, save from being giant pushovers in elevator tussles.

Dramatically, there’s so very little room for Cage to move through. David Guggenheim writes Montgomery as a stolid shade of the remorseful Dad, and apart from some early notes on Care Bear literature, Cage plays things by the book. The boring, predictable book. This one goes to Josh Lucas, but that’s not necessarily a compliment. Lucas’s Vincent is a delusional, self-righteous dick, whose credibility is destroyed by such a ridiculous appearance and accents of whatever synthetic compound he’s been smoking. Lucas doesn’t just look filthy; he sounds like it:

The risk of such a loud performance against the rest of Stolen’s density is an overreaction, both in Vincent’s character and in Lucas exaggerating a scenario in which anyone else would settle with the missing leg and let sleeping dogs lie. Then again, people who look like they’re crashing on Courtney Love’s couch don’t exactly qualify as “anyone.”

Comparisons to Taken are easy here — seriously, that title is shameless — but apart from the kidnapped daughter, this really has more in common with a bargain bin redux of Matchstick Men or acid flashbacks to Book of Secrets and its doofy storytelling. When Montgomery finally buries his old life with him, we’re treated to Danny Huston vocalizing his interior monologue to the effect of “Thank you, Will. I’ll return to my life now.” I’ll endorse half of that thought.

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Let Qui-Gons be bygones and leave Star Wars alone, John Williams

williams and 3PO

As, well, none of you probably noticed, I’ve avoided shilling my two cents on the whole  “Star Trek dude’s directing Star Wars announcement. Until Now.

The petty squabbling over one franchise affecting the “purity” of the other is pointless and something I wanted to avoid. Star Wars has kinda sucked since 1999, and Star Trek stopped being culturally relevant a few years before that. The short of it is this: Stars Trek and Wars are not mutually exclusive properties. I can and do enjoy both, and this warring tribalism is ridiculous.

Hiring JJ Abrams to direct Episode VII makes sense. Aesthetically, Star Trek ‘09 had more in common with the original Star Wars than it did with the previous adventures of Kirk and Spock, much to the chagrin of certain stubborn Trekkers who apparently prefer their alienating pop culture to keep on alienatin’. Abrams shouldn’t give any Star Wars fan reason to have a very bad feeling about all this. In fact, his presence has potential to be a very good thing, a sentiment that’s already been expressed in far better, more entertaining ways that I would only copy. (See: HuffPo’s Mike Ryan on why “Abrams is the most qualified of any prior Star Wars director.”)

Or for a shorter analysis, listen to 80 seconds of RedLetterMedia, who put things most succinctly and most best-ly:

With Abrams signing on to direct, it seems as if… some sort of equilibrium… might soon be restored to a binding, cosmic… force. There’s just one thing: John Williams wants in, and I have a problem with that.

Even though I shouldn’t have to, let me qualify my argument by stating that John Williams is the man. The hipster in me really wants to name someone else, but Williams remains my most cherished film composer of all time. That’s an extremely boring pick, and I completely accept what a douche nozzle I am for choosing it, but had John Williams only composed music to the Original Trilogy — no Jaws, no Close Encounters, no E.T., no Raiders of the Lost Ark, no Jurassic Park — this would still probably be true.

The music of the original Star Wars is a big reason why the entire property has lasted so long. Back in 1977, its classical style added a then-unconventional grandiosity to the story of a farm boy, a princess and a smuggler, especially in a time when the cinematic tendency leaned toward synth and disco beats in scores. This option was briefly considered for Star Wars, too. Think about that one.

More to the point, the original Star Wars soundtrack remains the best-selling orchestral score of all-time, and for damn good reason:

At 1:53, there’s a gentle transition of elements from the Main Title into Williams’ “Force theme.” For a visual reference, this happens as Luke stares out at Tatooine’s binary sunset. Now watch that moment on mute, where it becomes just another asshole looking wistfully in the distance. Doesn’t exactly have that resonance anymore, does it? Williams’ work doesn’t just tie that scene together; it makes it iconic.

‘Tis but a grain of sand in the Dune Sea, too. An exhaustive list of John Williams’ Star Wars scores would be far too tedious, but a primer wouldn’t begin to scratch the surface. There are fleeting moments in nearly every track from his Star Wars score that add something essential to George Lucas’ space fantasy: the horn ostinato of marching Rebel prisoners; lamentable tragedy as C-3PO and R2’s escape pod falls to Tatooine’s surface; the smallest of dastardly ornaments introducing an Imperial ship. And that’s all in one track, yo.

In later installments, Williams went on to craft memorable themes for Yoda, Han and Leia, Luke and Leia, and Emperor Palpatine. (You’re clicking all of these, right?) There’s also this little number. Hell, I’ve even vouched for the man when he’s gone back and improved on his old stuff.

Williams flashed that brilliance in the Prequels too, albeit with a poppier simplicity. “Augie’s Great Municipal Band” is a damn catchy piece to close out Phantom Menace, but it’s also a faster take on the Emperor’s theme, just in a major key. There’s also musical foreshadowing in “Anakin’s Theme,” where Williams weaves in hints of  the “Imperial March.” Both “Duel of the Fates” and “Battle of the Heroes” are rousing choruses of anguish and majesty, and they double as great background music during those sweaty 10th grade lightsaber/curtain rod training sessions. Even Attack of the Clones, for all the shit it rightfully gets, still gave us this. For fuck’s sake, there’s a TOME of a Wikipedia article just on John Williams’ Star Wars scores.

[Promises not to do a John Williams Star Wars primer. Does one anyway]

There’s no way around it. John Williams’ contributions to the Star Wars franchise are eminently quantifiable, so it’s a giant pain in the ass to quantify all of them. His lasting legacy is undeniable, so it makes sense that he would express interest in returning to Star Wars, even if it makes more sense for him to stay the fuck away from it.

To those crying foul, to those protesting that “Star Wars won’t be the same without him!” I’ve got a news flash for you: Star Wars won’t be the same without George Lucas, and he’s already gone. All bets are off, as they should be.

JJ Abrams, Kathleen Kennedy, and the rest of Lucasfilm and Disney are taking Star Wars into new territory. This isn’t like the Prequel Trilogy. Where Episode I began was entirely up to George Lucas, but even back in 1999 we all knew where things would eventually end up. Star Wars Episode VII: Journey of the Space Children is completely different. The material goes forward and without creative limitation, apart from the production crew designing ramps for Harrison Ford’s Rascal scooter. This is post-Galactic Civil War territory. Make your JJ Abrams lens flares jokes, but I’d bet good money on these new films looking very different from what we’ve seen before. This is a chance for a new aesthetic, and with that aesthetic, a new soundtrack.

As far as potential composers, allow me to suggest Michael Giacchino. He’s about half the age of John Williams (a plus if we’re placing bets on longevity here), and he’s already got a versatile musical vocabulary. Take the unforgettable opening minutes of Up, a sequence whose emotional punch is owed in large part to Giacchino’s playful, somber “Married Life:”

It’s quite affecting, but if you’re one of twelve people on Earth unfrazzled by the weakness of human emotion, there’s always his sexy, excellent, sexcellent score for The Incredibles: 

There’s kineticism and character in those three and half minutes that embody the snap and depth of one of Pixar’s best movies. Still not convinced?

Giacchino’s theme from Star Trek is classically-inclined, one that sells the urgency and magnitude of heralding in these new Starfleet faces while simplifying those emotions into a genuine exuberance for adventure and discovery. Or you know, kinda what Star Trek’s always been about. At the same time, it’s a little too blunt and primal to be ripping off John Williams. I get the sense that Giacchino could easily incorporate Williams’ old magic into his new stuff, as he should. And if you don’t trust Giacchino to do it, you can trust Abrams, who’s already worked with the guy. In other words, there’s no chance of Giacchino replacing Han and Leia’s love theme with a snappy cabaret number.

Since everyone involved with Episode VII: Journey to the Lost Drainage Tunnel is obviously taking notes on my drool-covered idiot rants, the key takeaway here is to move forward. The Prequels ruined a lot of that Old Trilogy shine simply because they told us way more than we wanted to know. Hey, kids! Darth Vader built C-3PO to help out his mom! That cool bounty hunter you all love is just a clone! Chewbacca’s been pals with Yoda this whole time, you stupid suckers! Or to paraphrase a brilliant Patton Oswalt bit, “I don’t give a shit where the stuff I love comes from. I just love the stuff I love.”

As great as he is, John Williams represents more of the past, more of what JJ Abrams & Co. need to move away from. There’s a lot of Williams’ work that Giacchino could and should draw from, but just like JJ Abrams is taking over the director’s chair, just like Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt are writing new original stories, it’s time for the old bear to pass the torch. Forward, not back.

Because seriously if this young Han Solo bullshit happens, I’m joining a leper colony.

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My Buddy is a Cage – The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (2010)

Balthazar Blake Nicolas Cage homeless Sorcerer's Apprentice

Disney and Jon Turteltaub really do deserve each other; Nic Cage is just the frilly bow atop that lucrative package.

Maybe The Sorcerer’s Apprentice — and its $210 million in earnings — owes a lot of its success to Great Marketing Comrade Disney Machine. Still, it’s remarkable a lead actor with as dubious a recent track record as Cage still holds blockbuster drawing power; or was at least still chummy enough with Bob Iger. While the rest of the world waits for a third adventure with Ben Gates n’ Friends on yet another generic paranoid fantasy fueled by history/crack-cocaine, Disney, Turteltaub and Jerry Bruckheimer went and made something else to occupy their time. Don’t worry. It’s just as chemically engineered for that same “lowest common denominator” audience.

There’s very little worth remembering about 2010’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, despite Cage’s frazzly homeless wizard, Balthazar Blake. By any measure, Cage’s performance is tragically replaceable by… well, any other actor willing to don a fedora, crusty overcoat, and the emo arm-socks of a burned out Anthony Kiedis. Balthazar flits in and out around New York City, spouting random gibberish, spellcasting tips, and a pretty unessential mythology, and all of this mainly to his sole audience member, bumbling physics wiz Dave Stutler (Jay Baruchel).

Both National Treasure-ses were informed by a sketchy understanding of American history: the Templar treasure, the traditional passing of the President’s Book, or even– WHY AM I NOT FORGETTING ANY OF THIS STUFF?! Because of those Masonic references, a hefty expositional dump is needed in the original and a not-so-smooth Civil War flashback in its sequel. Well The Sorcerer’s Apprentice wants a prologue too, you guys. There’s a prophecy that states Dave will become the “Prime Merlinian,” a Dalai Lama-styled magical messiah who will destroy the evil Maxim Horvath (Alfred Molina) and his nefarious and notably absent mistress, Morgana Le Fay. National Treasure demanded the paranoid conspiracies and hysterical rants because they furthered equally absurd stories, stories that necessitated clues and hints from that history. Here, Cage and Molina are little more than mouthpieces with familiar faces, dropping knowledge bombs wherever they float off to, often forgetting that so little of this crap is ultimately important — or interesting.

Sorcerer's Apprentice Jay Baruchel

Baruchel’s Dave Stutler represents both the best and worst parts of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice — and that’s putting his awesome first name aside. While we’re busy drowning in Cage’s tedium of magical Han Dynasty urns and the nesting doll mechanics of a “Grimhold” soul prison, Baruchel lends a hesitant dryness to Dave’s fish-out-of-cauldron predicament, and it helps to lighten a lot of the sparkly banality. Really, Baruchel’s “that guy” from every group project you’ve ever done, the dude who only seems to be there to crack jokes at his own ineptitude, and Stutler’s ineptitude spans beyond learning magic. He’s desperately trying to secure the romantic wiles of Amber Heard clone, Teresa Palmer. The film’s menage a trois of screenwriters attempt a weak parallel between Dave and Balthazar, uniting the student and teacher through their romantic pursuits — Cage also wants to free fellow sorceress Monica Bellucci from the Grimhold’s powers. Love conquers all. Magic, evil, predictable writing.

Those with a passing familiarity of 1940’s Fantasia surely remember the iconic rendering of Paul Dukas’ “Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” complete with a Mickey Mouse in crimson robe and pointy hat. Turteltaub offers more than a knowing wink at the sequence, and one that goes way beyond giving Dave a red hoodie:

It’s kind of fun, but when inserted halfway through the scene, it comes off as the film excusing its own existence, like The Sorcerer’s Apprentice wants to build itself around this one moment. Just add some steampunk, a dash of Diagon Alley and a lot of One Republic. A LOT.

Then again, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice isn’t trying to be anything novel or unique. The plasma blasts and fireballs are kinda cool at first, but the showdowns devolve into live-action Dragon Ball Z re-enactments — the long, drawn out parts. And the action is as paint-by-numbers as the plotting: Dave’s gonna get the girl and learn to cast spells without the help from that pewter dragon ring. Balthazar will learn to trust his apprentice. Morgana and Horvath will be destroyed through Dave combining newfound powers with his advanced physics acumen. You can close your eyes and predict most of this on your own. Magical prophecy? Maybe a blueprint.

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My Buddy is a Cage – Vampire’s Kiss (1988)

Vampire's Kiss Nicolas Cage teeth

Ask Tommy Wiseau and he’ll swear on his grave The Room was meant to be terrible all along, that it was made as a black comedy and he knew that from the get-go. I remain… skeptical on that front. A quick sample of his filmography reveals a small body of work that’s generally underwhelmed audiences. I’m especially hesitant to bury anyone, especially after Rex Reed opened up his stupid mouth, but Wiseau’s track record seems to reveal his hand for him. The Room isn’t played for humor. It’s a failed dramatic effort that’s enjoyed an incredible upswell of ironic “cult” success. When Wiseau doesn’t acknowledge that, it’s disingenuous and a little insulting to its fans, even if they’ll throw plasticware regardless.

Rob Bierman’s Vampire’s Kiss doesn’t sit in quite that same low-rent paddleboat of probable certainty, rocking gently on the waters of revisionism and overextended metaphors. Vampire’s Kiss is a different animal from the same species, one where dramatic sincerity turns tail whenever Nicolas Cage graces us with his odious accent.

Peter Loew (Cage) is a prim literary agent who slowly seems to be losing his mind over a missing contract, one which his mousy absent-minded secretary Alva (María Conchita Alonso) can’t seem to find. Much of Vampire’s Kiss looks to its lead actor — and only its lead actor — for any attempts at humor, and in a film with this dominating of a performance, a similarly-sized dissection of Cage’s turn seems necessary. Cage dials up the yuppie douchebaggery with a thick, obnoxious accent that might belong to the love child of a Anglophilic Cali surfer. Though it’s repulsive to the ears, the ladies Loew routinely brings home seem to like it just fine. His mannerisms and tics, already humongous and disproportionate, quickly nosedive into ridiculous territory after Loew brings home “Rachel” (Jennifer Beals) and she bites his neck mid-coitus. Well, maybe she does. Bierman pastes events together in a hypnotic manner, where time lapses and commutes between work and home and therapy (Elizabeth Ashley) dissolve away occasionally.

Post-vampire bite is where Cage’s more… quotable moments turn up. Donning sunglasses to block out the office daylight, empowers Cage to ramp up the seething impatience. A series of confrontations with Alva become more and more ridiculous: one day he’s boring holes through her with magnifying eyeballs; the next, he’s leaping on furniture and chasing her around the building. There’s even a fake-out cab ride, where Loew personally visits Alva’s home — as she’s ironing in her bra, no less –to make amends. Only once he gets her back in the car, Loew “snaps again.” Cage’s nutso characterization is the only compelling piece of the Heatherton contract pursuit — one might argue the joke is precisely that same overreaction, but Alonso plays Alva as just as anxious over this scrap of paper. Because of that, Cage looks absurd but not completely unjustified in his temper tantrums.

The real meat of Vampire’s Kiss is Loew’s gestating fear that “Rachel” was secretly a vampire, and now he too is becoming one of them. It begins in horror with their drunken hook-up, but Loew never seems resistant to the idea, at one point even purchasing a pair of plastic vampire teeth. When his bizarre wish-fulfillment reaches its pinnacle, Cage runs through the streets, shouting at the top of lungs what only he could possibly believe.

Is this a parodic vision of the American businessman as societal leech? Is screenwriter Joseph Minion channeling his inner Bret Easton Ellis? Doubtful. Bierman strongly implies Peter Loew is just a man, delusional, but the truth is beside the point. Vampire’s Kiss remains unfocused, even after its lead gave its creators other things to obsess over, like say, the pedestrian camera work. Sure, the cutting room floor keeps the illusion running, but the editorial department can only do so much when the pieces are this deadened.

In a rare moment of disagreement, I would respectfully challenge Mr. Scott Tobias’ assertion that Vampire’s Kiss is among Cage’s best roles. That I can simply link to any of Cage’s nutso moments with a YouTube clip is a testament to their entertainment value, but one must be careful to conflate that with quality. Although Minion certainly had one in Martin Scorsese’s After Hours, Vampire’s Kiss is no dark comedy. One actor chomps on Scenery Hoagies among a supporting cast that’s committed to playing everything straight. Cage’s upper crust Valley Boy can’t only exist in the writing. Perhaps Bierman explained to his lead that this big of a performance was his modus operandi, that the intentional disjointing of parts dramatic and comedic was the point all along. Fine. But now you’re centering all attention on one player. Now Cage’s turn goes less in service of the joke and instead just becomes its own.

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The Nefarious Warner Brothers: Justice League’s Secret Archnemesis?

Justice League Alex Ross

The latest rumor making its way around the Internetz is not a good one: Warner Bros. might be reconsidering its hire of Will Beall to pen the mysterious Justice League movie.

Your first reaction might be a simple “WHO?” That’s a completely fair question, and in the interests of directly competing with Marvel’s small army of franchises, one that should be explored by someone, since Warners executives clearly didn’t do a lot of thinking.

Will Beall has two writing credits in the industry. A former homicide detective, Beall got his start as a writer and supervising story editor on ABC’s Castle. Never seen the show, but it’s been on the air five seasons so it must be doing something right.

Beall’s other credit is adapting Paul Lieberman’s Gangster Squad for the big screen. We know how that turned out, and among its many flaws was a poor attempt at manufacturing shallow, bloody pulp on the cheap. Character motivations went out the door, and if you took away Ryan Gosling’s Lucky Strikes and Josh Brolin’s fedora, there was little more than a bunch of mid-level talent who liked the idea of pretending to be gangsters.

Then again maybe Gangster Squad’s source material was never good to begin with. Like Castle, I haven’t checked out Lieberman’s original story; I’m far too busy blogging about movies that won’t get made. The film came in third on its opening weekend and has plummeted since; less than a month later, and it’s not even in the Top Ten at the box office.

Beall’s done plenty of work in TV, he has a disappointing movie debut, and virtually no experience with huge franchises. Gangster Squad’s script was just one problem, but one wonders exactly what convinced Warner Bros. in June 2012 that Beall could pull of a Justice League movie. Hiring him for a two hour+ movie about how Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, and Green Lantern (and really, whomever else Warners decides to awkwardly cram in there) seems like a bad idea. Does Beall have any familiarity with DC Comics? We know he has no comics-writing experience, and that might be to his advantage; his “green” status is definitely not. Joss Whedon’s extensive rewrites of Zak Penn’s Avengers script aside, does Warners think they can pull off the same solo feat with a vastly less seasoned writer? Fat chance.

And as easy as it is to rip Beall, this is piss poor planning on Warners’ part. Let’s look at their current plan:

  • Man of Steel (2013)
  • ???
  • Justice League (2015)

That’s… it. After Snyder’s Superman reboot, the Justice League plan seems to coast off of Man of Steel’s presumed success, Batman’s brand recognition and the sheer idea of an Avengers-style summer blockbuster for DC Comics. Those of you paying attention at home might notice several problems.

Presumably, Henry Cavill would be be helming this particular team-up, but apart from Ryan Reynolds (?), it’s all brand new names — in the case of Batman, a new name and face. What kind of a DC Universe is Warner Bros. even working with? Is this the same watered-down fantasy of Nolan’s films? Is this a darker universe? Any chance you tone down Flash’s ridiculous costume? And how do you expect to introduce, at minimum, Flash and Wonder Woman in a single movie? The Avengers formula worked, but only because Marvel Studios took the time to show people why Iron Man and Captain America and Thor could be cool on their own merits first. So far, Warner Bros. has shown why 1.5 of its heroes can be cool, and Batman probably didn’t need the boost. Martian Manhunter? Yeah. He could use some help.

To put this another way, Warner Bros. wants to make an Avengers movie in two years time with Iron Man, Hulk, and like, four Thors. Good luck with that.

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