Wednesday, March 09, 2011

In praise of Nicolas Cage

This confession may make me ridiculed or the object of derisive laughter among my fellow film fans but I really don’t care. I like Nicholas Cage and, on the whole, I’ve enjoyed more of his films than I’ve disliked. There. I’ve said it and I’m not ashamed. Over the past eight years or longer it has become the standard line to sneer at Mr. Cage for one of two reasons. Either it is felt that he appears in far too many movies each year and/or he chooses to appear in a high number of genre movies that are generally looked down on by the kind of pseudo-intellectual folks that take the Oscars as the benchmark of quality. I think these two complaints are actually only one complaint. I think one often hides within the other pretending it’s the real cause for criticism. Let me explain.

Last year Cage appeared in Werner Herzog’s film BAD LIEUTENANT: PORT OF CALL NEW ORLEANS and received mostly glowing reviews. His work was labeled as a return to form, a brilliant performance and a host of other accolades were piled high in service of praising a film that wallowed in gritty crime, sleazy activities, outrageous images, bizarre characters and a sick ends-justifies-the-means wrap up that was an almost perfect deus ex machina on its path to a ‘happy’ ending. I caught the film theatrically and loved it but I never thought it would get the kind of critical bolstering it received. After all- bashing Cage has become second nature in the film press and this movie had all the markers of another derided release. So why was this film lauded while other Cage movies are laughed at or ignored? Two words- Werner Herzog. When Herzog announced his intention to remake/reimagine/whatever Abel Ferra’s ferocious BAD LIEUTENANT the sneers were numerous and catcalls loud. Why would such a respected filmmaker lower himself to remake another’s work? And why make such a sleazy story again? Why cast Cage? What was the point? The answer seems to be that Herzog is a fan of films of all types and took the opportunity to make a certain type of movie that appeals to a wider audience than his usual efforts. As a director Herzog likes to do lots of different types of stories and so doing a police/crime thriller, although a strange move wasn’t too odd when you examine the man’s back catalog. He IS the guy who remade NOSFERATU after all. So I attribute the BAD LIEUTENANT accolades laid at Cage’s feet by mainstream critics to be solely because of the ‘respected director’ factor rather than because of any change in the actor’s skill level. One of the best things I heard while BAD LIEUTENANT was in general release was one critic twisting himself into a veritable Mobius strip trying to explain ‘good’ over the top Cage performances versus ‘bad’ over the top ones. That writer may be many things but a keen observer of what makes up various parts of a film is not one of them. Here’s a hint- the script might be an area to examine.

One of the things I admire most about Nicholas Cage is that he applies himself with steely determination to every role he undertakes. I never see him giving less than his full attention to the character even when it may be lesser material or even require him to do embarrassing things. This kind of commitment should be applauded but often is not – and that brings me to reason number two for the critical brickbats – Cage often puts his skills and name in service of genre pictures. Say what you want about how much money is made year in and year out by science fiction and horror movies but the industry continues to afford them all the respect of a valuable dog that pees on the new rug and humps the neighbor’s leg. They’re glad to have the money but would much rather talk about the high-minded period piece about the poor man overcoming terrible odds to provide for his family instead of the slick summer film about a guy in tights punching masked jerks. Dammit! If I wanted real life I’d look out the window or at my bank statement! I watch movies to be entertained, to be transported to some other place and so do most people. But no matter how well regarded a genre film might be the Hollywood intelligentsia and their acolytes will never give credit to the creative people involved in such films. If you have any doubts ask yourself why Christopher Nolan wasn’t nominated for an Academy Award for his last two movies. Super hero stories and science fiction tales aren’t REAL movies. They’re the trash, not be taken seriously. You don’t give awards to a man for making a Batman movie. And by this same token you don’t take seriously a man who makes a lot of genre films. To do so would be to open yourself up to the kind of sneering snobbery of folks that consider a film like GHANDI one of the best of the year but ignores BLADE RUNNER.

As a genre fan I love the fact that Cage likes these types of movies and seems to want to make them. If it weren’t for him I’m sure a good number of very interesting movies wouldn’t get made at all. And one of the worst aspects of this dismissal of his films is that several really good movies that aren’t of the horror or science fiction genres seem to get missed as well. I think ADAPTATION, LORD OF WAR, THE WEATHER MAN, and MATCHSTICK MEN are fantastic movies that almost any reasonable person would enjoy but I hear almost no one talking about them – other than me. Do yourself a favor and see these movies. And then look at some of his other recent movies with a less jaundiced eye. There are good things there.

Now I come to the reason for this far too long rant. Cage has had two films come out so far in 2011 and I’ve been excited to see them both. One is a period swords and demons film called SEASON OF THE WITCH and the other is bizarre sounding film about a man let out of Hell to save his daughter called DRIVE ANGRY. If I could preorder my tickets I would have! But having seen SEASON OF THE WITCH the other day I have to report that it falls on the side of a slight thumb down from me. I didn’t find it to be the disaster that the usual suspects in critical circles labeled it but it had too many things that detracted from it overall to be recommendable. The biggest problem is the too contemporary dialog and use of modern turns of phrase throughout. These anachronistic elements irritated me and added up to a big negative that the things I liked couldn’t overcome. The film looks good, I like the cast and the story is solid pulpy fun. The characters were interesting enough but there was little energy to the piece. It felt a little off at times with shifts in tone that were not as well handled as they should have been. It’s a shame too, as I really liked the idea of ex-Crusade soldiers being forced to transport a dangerous and possibly possessed girl to monks who can exorcise the suspected witch safely. It just never convinced me so it ends up being a 4 out of 10 for me.

But I plan to see DRIVE ANGRY soon! And I was excited about his upcoming film TRESPASS until I learned that Joel Schumacher directed it. Ugh! That’s a river I will not cross. Until Schumacher personally apologizes to me for 8MM, BATMAN FOREVER, BATMAN & ROBIN and THE NUMBER 23 his work will not get my money.

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