Monthly Archives: April 2013

My Buddy is a Cage — Trespass (2011)

Trespass Nicolas Cage

I’ll save everyone some time and check my Batman & Robin jokes at the door, but Joel Schumacher continues to raise doubts about his storytelling skills much less his ability to simply choose a good story to tell.

Nicolas Cage plays Kyle Miller, a diamond dealer and the owner of a gated mansion with homemaker wife Sarah (Nicole Kidman) and trampy, rebellious daughter Avery (Liana Liberato). Sarah and Kyle are going through some marital struggles, as evidenced by awkward glances between Kidman and Cage. On the eve of what looks to be a very big diamond deal for Kyle, their home is broken into by a gang of thieves posing as police officers (Ben Mendelson, Cam Gigandet, Jordana Spiro, Dash Mihok). Their goal? Get in, rob the Millers, and get out. Except the biggest threat to the thieves’ plan isn’t Kyle or Sarah or Avery or even the cops. It’s Karl Gajdusek.

Karl Gajdusek isn’t an ambiguously European terrorist who pops up in the third act; he’s the screenwriter for Trespass and the archenemy of suspense. iMDb places Trespass under “drama,” “crime,” and “thriller” but the more appropriate “tedious” is nowhere to be found. See, the Millers’ home gets broken into within the first 25 minutes, and much to the chagrin of lead burglar Elias (Mendelson), plans go anything but smoothly. Gajdusek seems to believe that good storytelling amounts to a series of cheap reveals, but there’s a big difference between organic progression of a plot and withholding pieces of information only to reveal them one by one. Trespass’ least insignificant reveal is its suggesting an affair between Sarah and their mansion’s utility boy, Jonah (Gigandet). Gajusek uses adultery as an “in” for how a few crooks learn the lay of the house, the location of the family safe, and the surveillance camera setups, but the affair is distracting and awkwardly recalled. Constant flashbacks to a seductive pool scene or knowing glances are a no-no in effective storytelling. Schumacher’s direction elevates these dissolving sequences to a laughably cheesy level, with all the mise-en-scene of a Yoplait commercial.

Trespass Nicole Kidman

Trespass is an ugly picture, and not in a way that might lend itself to home invasion by gunpoint. Grimy burglars with tattered ski masks and bad tattoos look wretched against the Millers’ flourescent lights and uber-modern digs. Rip Schumacher’s Batman movies for any number of things — dialogue, casting, tone, story, acting; design and art direction aren’t at the top of the list, though. It’s as if Schumacher personally flew Ben Mendelson from the set of Animal Kingdom (where he plays a similarly odious criminal, mind you) shoved him in a room, turned on every light fixture in it and just said “go.”

Cage as “Kyle” — a first name that sadly counts as one of his more exotic roles — occupies a dweebish kind of confidence. He’s a man with a hot (surgically-enhanced) trophy wife, but also a man who never really knew what to do with her, short of having a child. Their daughter Avery is a motivational train wreck, and that’s excluding her skanky fashion choices for a forbidden weeknight party. Both Liberato and Kidman have the unfortunate task of making underwritten women seem like anything but, and that’s hard to do with what they’re given. Schumacher’s direction of his actors takes a back-burner, allowing Gigandet to weasel his way through a bland psychotic heartthrob while pros like Mendelson and Cage are graciously left alone. Mercifully, Cage includes some twitchy looks and even gets in some Cage-ing out between hostage and hostage-taker:

At first, Cage plays Kyle as a buttoned-up workaholic, but here he snaps from all the incessant (and again, tedious) threats on the lives of his wife and daughter. His sudden hard-nosed demands and ballsy bargaining don’t gel with the complacent cell phone calls Cage makes earlier on, but it’s a welcome change of pace from a very empty series of threats. Take what you can get.

It’s difficult to give Trespass any credit since it never gives us any. The burglars’ threats are empty because the stakes are muddied and underdeveloped. For a film with such intended carnage, it’s a relatively bloodless affair of punching and kicking, yelling and crying, stabbing and shooting. No matter how often Ben Mendelson aims his shotgun barrel at Nicole Kidman’s head, we know her face is coming out of this okay — well, as okay as it can possibly be at this point. Schumacher’s trajectory — moving from costume designer to The Wiz screenwriter to hollywood director — is commendable, but the fruits of his labor haven’t fared so hot. Now let’s all bow our heads and pray for Ben Mendelson’s career. He, like Cage and Kidman here, definitely deserves better.

Questionable Curse Word Theater: 

  • “You shit fucking animals! Avery! Averyyy!”
  • “If it’s the kidney you want, take mine, you ass fuck!”
  • Cage originally insisted on switching to play one of the Millers’ kidnappers instead. During production.

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“Destroy Malevolence” – S1/E4

Destroy Malevolence

The whole gang’s back together! Thank God. I was beginning to think Revenge of the Sith was just a dream and Padme actually died in the arena battle.

With the Malevolence in hasty retreat from Republic forces, Grievous goes to one last gambit by capturing “Senator” Padme Amidala, whom Count Dooku reveals is en route — What exactly is Padme doing here? No idea. It’s hastily explained away through Palpatine’s machinations, something Clone Wars has taken plenty advantage of already. Grievous secures Padme, with C-3PO in tow, and uses them as a bargaining chip against the sympathies of Obi-Wan and Anakin. Skywalker, not one to trust Padme’s safety with the incompetent Separatist leader, sneaks aboard the crippled Malevolence with Kenobi and R2-D2. They hope to rescue Padme and goldenrod as well as finish off the remains of the ship — with any luck while Grievous is still on board.

Sure, Padme’s presence here is a cheap but satisfying way of bringing the three together for the series’ first time, but it doesn’t make a great deal of sense in terms of storytelling. Again, I’m not sure why Padme is going where she’s going in the first place, apart from giving her a reason to be in “Destroy Malevolence.” Through its first four episodes The Clone Wars has already milked plenty out of “It was Palpatine,” and in some fashion this consistency with Episodes I and II is nice. But jeez, if the Rebel Alliance were this clueless, there would be no Empire Strikes Back after the “Great Galactic Bitch Slap of Yavin IV.” Padme’s presence does allow for some okay albeit broad character moments. Anakin and Obi-Wan show the chummier side of their relationship, and Anakin shares a nice beat with Padme about trust and love and cool Force powers — you know, stuff of romance.

Clone Wars continues to either hit or miss in its choice of callbacks. In the case of C-3PO’s tumble through yet another obstacle course, it’s a brutal miss. Attack of the Clones’ factory sequence was lamentable for taking too many liberties with the humor the droids lent to the Star Wars universe, exaggerating it to embarrassing lengths of slapstick with C-3PO. This instance is far more merciful in its brevity, and thankfully Obi-Wan’s quick rescue of Threepio is followed by a short duel with General Grievous. I was under the (apparently naive) assumption the two would fight for the first and only time in Sith, but seeing Obi-Wan hurl Droidekas like bowling balls was cool enough to make me forget about canon. Hey Qui-Gon, where was that move in Episode I?

Its exact demise may have been uncertain, but the Malevolence probably wasn’t making it out of the series in one piece, so this episode was more of an inevitability than anything else. Thankfully, it lands on its feet with the decision to send Grievous packing. Anakin re-programming the warship’s navicomputer to crash into a nearby moon was a nice touch; Grievous’ cutting off communications with Dooku mid-transmission was even better. His shame at a resume of successive failures finally provides some self-awareness on the series’ end. I faulted previous episodes’ shortsighted characterization of Count Dooku. Too often the Separatist leader forgot that his droid general was just as likely to fail in the worst possible way as he was to succeed. It remains unclear if Grievous engaged the hyperdrive only to run back to Dooku anyway, but where their dynamic goes from here is something I look forward to. For now, let’s appreciate that The Clone Wars is finally developing its character moments and shifting at least one important relationship, as opposed to merely creating and then destroying surface level MacGuffins.

Stray Observations:

  • The Federation’s “firefighter” droids are a new benchmark of stupid. Why they would resemble anything like a fire department’s uniforms is beyond me, though I suppose an idea as dumb as that requires a real-world proxy.
  • Little from Ahsoka Tano means little complaining on this end.
  • Really thought the writers would try a “Padme as rough and tumble Leia” angle here. Alas, she self-destructs her cruiser in an attempt to take out Grievous and then reactivates Mousy Helpless Mode. Padme’s cogency as a galactic politician was always criminally underused in the Prequels. One can still dream, I guess.
  • Anakin goes to sabotage the Malevolence’s computer while Padme… cleans the droids. Star Wars at its most regressive!
  • Anakin adds insult to injury: “How’s the housecleaning going? Make me a Corellian club sandwich when you’re done too, toots”*

*Only half of this dialogue has been altered

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My Buddy is a Cage — World Trade Center (2006)

World Trade Center movie

I know. I know. I know. It’s been a month. Shut up.

I briefly toyed with the idea of watching World Trade Center around the second week in September last year. My assumption was that it would somehow pay respect to a terrible event in American history. 

Waiting was a great decision.

Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center marks… what, the eighth time Nicolas Cage has played a character named “John” or some Jack-related variant as New York officer John McLoughlin. That number goes up even higher if you add “Joe” to the mix. And once again, Cage is filling in for someone else, as Stone’s alleged original choices were Mel Gibson, George Clooney, or Kevin Costner.

World Trade Center is a great example of how to ruin a pretty easy story to tell. I want to be clear here, though: The terrorist attacks on 9/11 was terrible and ripped apart thousands of families forever. Obviously. World Trade Center is just as obviously centered around those attacks and thus its disadvantage — tiptoeing around the events of a national tragedy just five years after — is also its advantage as a dramatic centerpiece: We know that people are going to die. While World Trade Center is  respectful to the event by not recreating too much of that day, apart from the shadow of the first plane and some recreated tower shots. However, Oliver Stone and writer Andrea Berloff remain convinced that “9/11 movie” is the same as drama, that people reacting to tragedy is the same as plot mechanics. World Trade Center operates under the assumption that “this is sad, so be sad about these sad characters we’re showing you” and then proceeds to thrash about for another 90 minutes.

Berloff’s script is an adaptation of the accounts of two former Port Authority officers who did in fact help evacuate the buildings: the aforementioned John McLoughlin and Michael Peña’s Will Jimeno. Aside from loosely recreating the  morning of September 11th, 2001, the bulk of Berloff’s script switches between McLoughlin and Jimeno, who become trapped under falling rubble as they help evacuate the twoers, and the frantic searches of their wives, played by Maria Bello and Maggie Gyllenhaal, respectively. “Their wives” sounds reductive, and it is, but not on my part. I’ve no doubt these two women were completely distraught over the safety and livelihood of their brave husbands. In real life. But perhaps Berloff should’ve considered a different focus for her script, as it affords the two actresses little to do short of playing feckless, apparent homemakers fawning over their significant others; they’re baby-ovens and laundry-folders who fail the Bechdel test right out of the gate.

World Trade Center Nicolas Cage

World Trade Center shifts between its characters through a disarming number of fades, and the effect is schizophrenic in that those fades constantly suggest significant lapses in time, even when Stone cross-cuts to a simultaneous event. It’s a technical piece of storytelling that seems trivial but makes a great difference when used so recklessly. Forget that Berloff doesn’t know how to balance anguished wives with Jimeno and McLoughlin’s survival dialogue; Stone makes things worse. As a word to the wise, shooting at a higher frame rate and cutting out non-diegetic sound do not automatically create great drama. The constant fades and grating slow-motion don’t add historical weight. They make a trudgingly-paced adaptation a nigh unbearable two hour movie. They make a not-so-compelling story unwieldy, like a raconteur on a Robitussin trip. Not that I’d know anything about that kind of thing.

World Trade Center also presents New York City’s middle class as an interior slice of suburban nobility and wisdom. Everyone knows everyone else, and they’re all united in their noble, wise middle-class-iness. When Marine Corps volunteers (including a then-unknown Michael Shannon)  discover McLoughlin and Jimeno beneath the tower debris,  McLoughlin is placed on an oxygen machine, and World Trade Center uses this as an opportunity for an overwrought conversation between Bello and Cage via unconscious dream sequence. It’s a heavy-handed chunk of Levittown-styled nuclear family schmoozing, and its aim is unclear aside from giving McLoughlin a “reason” to live. Again, Berloff is adapting a story about real people, so maybe McLoughlin really did argue with his imagined wife about redecorating the house. Maybe he really did live for civil service, for his family, for wantin to take his kid to see the Yankees whoop the A’s in the playoffs. I don’t know, and in terms of good filmmaking it doesn’t matter. It’s no excuse to tread water in a movie that probably never needed to get made in the first place — really par for the course on Oliver Stone’s filmography these days.

There’s little room for any character development here, as Berloff would have to cram several epiphanies inside a 24-hour story rooted in history and raw emotion. Luckily, Cage still finds ways to insert his crazy anyway. It’s tough to pin down exactly what he’s doing with his New York accent; sometimes it’s convincing, but more often that not it sits somewhere between extremes of “drunk New Jersey truck driver heckling Derek Jeter” and “standup comedian who’s never met a New Yorker doing his best approximation of a New Yorker.” Cage also scrounges up some anguished screams of torture. They’re  not on some serious Wicker Man levels, but it’s enough to remind you that Nicolas Cage once starred in a 9/11 drama. According to the occasionally unreliable iMDb “Trivia” section, Cage spent hours in a sensory-deprivation tank to prepare for the role’s claustrophobia. Please let that be true. 

There’s a few pretty, even haunting shots of New York City here, and Maggie Gyllenhaal is surprisingly competent in the nothing role she has here, but Stone tries to take his contemplative imagery and spread it out over a two hour runtime. On top of that, he gives Berloff’s adaptation more dramatic credit than it probably deserves. I’ve no doubt a better screenplay is probably somewhere inside the real accounts of John McLoughlin and Will Jimeno, but it isn’t here.

Stray Observations:

  • Usually these pot-shots are reserved for those delinquent Clone Wars reviews, but what Stone and his production team envision as “Sheboygan, WI police officers” is laughably bad. Eager to to do their part in recovering from this American tragedy, a soggy patrolman mans a grill and extends a cooked sausage to a fellow first responder: “WANNA BRATT?” In Los Angeles, there is no “Minnesota” or “Illinois.” We’re all the same.
  • “I don’t think you guys realize this, but this country is now at war.” Michael Shannon, before shaving his head at the barber and suiting up.
  • Bello and Cage’s weird subconscious conversation: “You can’t leave yet, the kitchen isn’t even finished yet.” “Will you forget about the kitchen for a minute. I’m kinda stuck here.” “Well get unstuck, John.”

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