Archive for the ‘ actors ’ Category

Cage-Fest, Day 3: Peggy Sue Got Married

In preparation for — nay, in honor of — the upcoming premier of Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call in New Orleans, directed by Werner Herzog and starring the great performer Nicolas Cage, the Acme Video blog will be running a series of (at least) daily pieces on the entire Cage Oeuvre, with its startling highs and mystifying lows. It is one man’s tale… a chronicle of madness and obsession.

DAY 3: PEGGY SUE GOT MARRIED

The film that ended the professional relationship of Francis Ford Coppola and Nicolas Cage. Cage, who is nephew to Coppola and had worked with him previously on Rumble Fish and The Cotton Club (we’ll be getting to those films later), plays Kathleen Turner‘s main squeeze in this nostalgic, time-traveling, graceless attempt at 50’s-era high school romp. They call these films, “Dramedies,” I think — shorthand for a film that’s too lazy to be funny and too stupid to be dramatic. Maybe this was the beginning of the end for Coppola. Bear in mind, we’re not talking about the director of Apocalypse Now, here; we’re talking about the director of Jack.

That said, the film ended up being a solid box-office success for Coppola, his first since Apocalypse Now. In fact, a lot of people seem to like this movie (rated 88% “Fresh” (?!) on Rotten Tomatoes). Maybe it’s an age thing… But as someone who hadn’t bothered to ever watch this flick until just a few days ago, I can honestly say that this is one of the stupidest, clumsiest, most trite films I’ve ever seen (again, Jack comes to mind). The plot is so cumbersome and poorly constructed you can actually hear it creaking as it stumbles forward.

That is, unless Nic Cage is on the screen. Cast in the kind of role and in the kind of movie that normally would have called for a cocky, masculine performance, Cage instead distills his character into a supremely dopey Ken-doll with a pinched, hyper-nasal speaking voice. Cage has since admitted that he based the voice on that of Pokey from the Gumby Show; numerous accounts from the production claim that Coppola was extremely unhappy with the voice and wanted Cage out of the film completely. Somehow, Cage was able to convince him that the voice would work and he should be allowed to stay on. And apart from bringing a much-needed dose of sarcasm to a film that gags on its own earnestness, there’s a zany energy to Cage’s performance that does far greater justice to the spirit of youth than any of the other campy, ebullient turns by the film’s obviously over-age cast. He’s the only one who lets the audience in on the fun; the only one who seems to understand that if you really want to act like teenager, you have to act like a teenager.

This clip is kind of long; skip to 2:50 if you want to go straight to Cage.

Cage-Fest, Day 2

In preparation for — nay, in honor of — the upcoming premier of Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call in New Orleans, directed by Werner Herzog and starring the great performer Nicolas Cage, the Acme Video blog will be running a series of (at least) daily pieces on the entire Cage Oeuvre, with its startling highs and mystifying lows. It is one man’s tale… a chronicle of madness and obsession.

(So, there’s not gonna be any order to this thing. My only goal is to see them all. And to try and space out the good ones, so that I don’t have to watch, like, six Cage/Bruckheimer movies in a row. Any and all are encouraged to chime in in the comment section with thoughts, recommendations, dissenting opinions, etc. Today you get two stinkers for the price of one. Ever onward…)

DAY 2: MATCHSTICK MEN + BANGKOK DANGEROUS

I’ll ignore, for now, the question of what in God’s name has happened to Ridley Scott. But what a stiff, joyless film this is. Seriously, everybody was on autopilot for this one. None worse than Cage, who looks in this film like someone completely devoid of the joie de vivre that defines his best performances. Playing an obsessive-compulsive con-man, Cage’s character is nothing more than a collection of tics, twitches, and stutters; he over-acts his character’s quirks rather than give us anything of substance. There isn’t a single moment where he seems to be having any fun at all, which is the least he could’ve brought to a slick caper-film of this kind. Utterly forgettable.

Exhibit B is blockbuster Cage. Or at least, attempted blockbuster — this baby flopped at the box office (supposedly Cage’s own production company, Saturn Films, fronted most of the cost). There is very nearly no reason at all to see this film, though it is necessary viewing, for my purposes. He’s an assassin in Bangkok, lives only for himself, loves no one, will kill anyone and everyone who gets in his way, yadda yadda yadda. But dig his deaf-mute girlfriend, whom he primarily communicates with via pained facial expressions. This is Cage’s bread and butter — he’s a clown without makeup. None of these scenes were intended for comic relief, but… you take what you can get.

As we work our way through Cage-Fest together, I want you all to keep an eye out for some recurrent symbols in Cage’s work. There are a couple in particular that I’m interested in, but I’m still formulating my theories and I can’t say much as yet. But I’ll give you all a couple clues.

Clue #1: Cage’s hair. Be especially mindful of the style, and the direction in which it’s combed.

Clue #2: There are two Cages.

See you tomorrow.

CAGE-FEST!

nickcagecrazyeyesIn preparation for — nay, in honor of — the upcoming premier of Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call in New Orleans, directed by Werner Herzog and starring the great performer Nicolas Cage, the Acme Video blog will be running a series of (at least) daily pieces on the entire Cage Oeuvre, with its startling highs and mystifying lows. It is one man’s tale… a chronicle of madness and obsession.

DAY 1: VAMPIRE’S KISS

I begin with Vampire’s Kiss because, for the uninitiated, for the non-believers, for the haters and the nay-sayers, there is probably no better single testament to Nick Cage’s truly unique, entirely reckless, batshit-crazy brand of “acting.”  This is Cage’s Last Tango In Paris. His Aguirre, Wrath of God. His Silence Of The Lambs. If you crossed Marlon Brando, Klaus Kinski, and Hannibal Lecter you would end up with something close to Peter Loew, Cage’s utterly psychotic method-acting transformation from depressed-skirt-chasing-1980’s-literary-agent to control-freak-vampire-maniac-rapist.

One is tempted to use the phrase “a descent into madness,” but Vampire’s Kiss is more like a private tour of every wing of the nut-house. Loew is mad even at the film’s outset — a spastic, giggling, sexually-charged playboy, with women and money to burn and an awesomely Gothic Manhattan apartment. Cage adopted a strange, high-falutin, vaguely English accent for part, which comes and goes depending on his mood (and in one of several phenomenal scenes with his shrink, it actually becomes contagious; see the clip below). It’s just one of several crazy-as-a-fox decisions Cage makes, choices that would have been disastrous for a lesser actor — or at least one with smaller cajones. The fun really gets started once Loew gets his first vampire bite and begins his fitful, wildly uneven mutation into a blood-starved creature of the night. A fun enough premise in its own right, but both the film — and primarily, Cage — take so many stylistic left-turns that it’s not long before you’re feeling just as lost and desperate as Loew, wandering through Robert Bierman‘s fantastically cheerless Manhattan. Vampire’s Kiss then becomes a truly Kafkaesque fracturing of the Cage psyche. Donning a pair of old-person driving sunglasses, Cage’s movements become decidedly bat-like, as he leaps and flits around his office, screaming and twitching at his lowly assistant because of some completely insignificant file that’s gone missing. Much of the film is devoted to the manic-depressive head games Loew plays on this poor young woman (a perfectly mousy Maria Conchita Alonso) who fears — rightly — for her safety. Cage’s performance is truly one of the moodiest I’ve ever seen, and I mean that in the best possible sense: you can’t look away, and you never know what’s next. Few actors have ever mixed horror and comedy this well.

He eats a cockroach, people (in fact he ate three, one for each take). Gobbles it up. The final scene is an insane Cage-vs.-Cage riff, basically like watching a psychopath simultaneously prosecute and defend himself in a court of law. You MUST see this film.

Impossible to pick just one scene, but yeah… this one rules.

Steven Soderbergh, Meet Sasha Grey

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Steven Soderbergh would seem to have walked a pretty short, straight line from Sex, Lies, And Videotape – released way back when in 1989 — to The Girlfriend Experience. He has, once again, made a film which at first blush would seem to be explicitly about sex but which, viewers will find, shows nothing of the kind on screen. There is, of course, a great deal of talk on the subject, and The Girlfriend Experience being what it is, that talk is something slightly more explicit than in Sex, Lies… For those unfamiliar, The Girlfriend Experience stars Sasha Grey, who made a name for herself initially in hardcore-pornography, while name-dropping Jean-Luc Godard in interviews and displaying a penchant for masochism in her movies. In this film she plays an ultra-high-class call-girl, providing “the complete girlfriend experience” for her über-rich financial-district clients. And in typical Soderbergh style, the film is superbly edited, expertly shot, lushly colored… and colder than a witch tit. But mercifully, the casting of Grey turns about to be less a marketer’s wet-dream than an inspired, essential choice. She gives a surprising warmth to a role that doesn’t present too many obvious opportunities for drama or sentiment. And Soderbergh, who more often than not has struck me as kind of a wuss as a filmmaker, generally seems to have the good sense to stick with his star and the natural energy she carries with her. My biggest gripe would be that Soderbergh spends too much time with the various Wall Street meat-heads who are supposed have had their realities all shaken up by the “Great Recession.” Who the fuck cares? Some of this stuff will seem really dated in just a year’s time.

Kind of a bummer that this guy is what passes for a rebel in Hollywood these days, but I digress… The film is worth seeing, and Ms. Grey might just turn out to be the real deal. Whatever that is.

The Loveless

the lovelessdafoeFor the past couple weeks I’ve been slowly working my way through the work of director Kathryn Bigelow, whose latest film, The Hurt Locker, has been garnering major praise (I haven’t seen it myself). To be honest, her work left me fairly underwhelmed, but it wasn’t for lack of variety; she’s definitely not a director who works exclusively in just one or two genres. Have a look around Acme and see for yourself: she has a film each in Horror, Sci-Fi, Indy, War, and Juvee, plus three more in thriller (those three are easily the worst of the bunch: Blue Steel is Jamie Lee Curtis doing the female cop thing, with a god-awful Ron Silver as her crazed lover/nemesis; K-19: The Widowmaker is Harrison Ford doing his best Russian accent in the face of one of the most expensive independent films ever made — over $100 million, of which it failed to recoup even half; and then there’s Point Break, which needs no synopsis). All that being said, y’all should really check out her first feature-length, The Loveless.

This was Willem Dafoe’s first film, playing the young leader of a biker gang on their way to Daytona who get waylaid in a small, Podunk southern town. I haven’t seen too many films — especially low-budget, independent films — that have gotten the ’50s biker-flick look so right, and Bigelow deserves major credit for that. The bikes, the cars, the costumes and the sets — everything looks exactly as it should, and it’s all topped off with a totally kickass rockabilly score with original stuff from Robert Gordon and John Lurie. But this isn’t just your typical biker-gang-wreaks-havoc flick, as Bigelow punctuates the film with all manner of disconcerting images: from the boredom and malaise on the faces of the local help, to the vaguely-illegal oil business run by town’s antagonistic alpha-male, to the punchy, nervous atmosphere of the bar in the film’s final scene. Working with just a few set pieces, the photography is thoughtful and consistently original, and Bigelow does a wonderful job of insinuating a great deal about the pain of characters’ lives without beating you over the head with any of it. Dafoe’s performance is the real stunner — and even more so given his age and inexperience. Watching him, it’s hard not to draw comparisons to Brando’s early stuff, as he plays the role with a remarkable softness that belies the intensity of his character. Young ‘uns only familiar with the man from his Spiderman role would do well to seek this one out.

The DQ

One of my all-time favorite cinematic moments.

Gran Torino – Clint’s Ode To A Changing America

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The Ford Gran Torino was among the last American muscle cars produced in the 1971-1975 decline of Detroit factory performance cars. From about 1957-1970, American companies designed and built many particularly beautiful and fast cars. Corvette, Mustang, GTO, Challenger, AMX, Camaro, Firebird, Barracuda, to name a few. Originally conceived for racing purposes, these cars were later developed for street use, and were marketed specifically to the young using very powerful advertising tools like movies,television and magazines. The resulting street culture was dangerous and short lived in some ways, but today is a huge subculture involving young and old alike. Restoring, showing and collecting these cars is now the industry, kept alive by enthusiasts who undoubtedly feel these cars represent who they are or want to be.

1970 marked a definite shift away from the pursuit of faster and more outrageous cars for street purposes. Safety issues and manufacturing costs played a part, but mostly the new decade was shaping up to be hard economically for America. The country plunged into a record recession caused mainly by the reckless Vietnam War. Sound familiar? After 1973 there were shortages of fuel due to upheaval in the global oil industry and soon the focus was on energy efficiency. U.S. companies persisted in the marketing of muscle though, but increasingly failed in both design and execution. The 1972 Gran Torino is a perfect example. It was an ugly, terrible car by most muscle car standards. Now, though, in an age when cars are SO boring, the car of the movie may have some retro appeal, but it is the symbolic nature of this particular beast in the 2008 Clint Eastwood masterpiece Gran Torino that is more powerful.

The name Gran Torino comes from the Italian city of Turin, or Torino. It is the capital of the Italian automobile industry, headquarters for Fiat, Alfa Romeo and Lancia, just as Detroit has been the home of the big three American companies Ford, GM and Chrysler. The car was actually more of a standard level of automobile, a replacement in name and design for the mid-level Fairlane line that Ford had. Like they had for about a decade, the companies would offer a performance model at the high end of their lines with special engines and added sport features. These were always limited production cars, the most costly, and supposedly the best the companies had to offer. In 1972, Ford putting a big V-8 and some stripes and mags on a bloated family car and calling it Gran Torino was a lame attempt at preserving muscle car prestige. It signaled the end of an era and the tough times that lay ahead.

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It is an interesting choice of car and title for a film about a bitter man near the end of his life, struggling with the scars of his past and his relationship with the world around him. Clint’s character Walt Kowalski is one of the last of an old breed in a relentlessly changing world. He is a retired Detroit auto worker and Korean War veteran. A widower, he sits alone and stares with hatred at the world around him, especially his neighbors next door, a family of Hmong. His view of them is shaped by his past, the enemies he fought and killed in Korea. To him they are just more “gooks” and he’s bitter that his neighborhood has gone to shit and he blames them. When a gang tries to recruit the young boy next door, Kowalski will be drawn into their lives and be called to action, unwillingly at first. Through helping to boy and his family, he comes to know them and realizes that he has much to give, including the symbol of his youth.

He’s had the Gran Torino in his garage since it rolled off the line in 1972, and it has a special significance for him because among other things he actually worked on the assembly of the car. To him it’s a mean green street machine, an expression of his character that he preserved and cared for, a reminder of how things used to be in his life. This film is an ode to that past, and to ours as Americans, and a sort of poem to deal with the last century as we move into the next.

From about 1972 to present we have witnessed the downhill slide of the American auto industry as international competition (specifically Japan’s Big Three – Honda, Toyota and Nissan) took hold of the market with better and more efficient products. Most recently, to the amazement of American consumers and auto workers alike, it’s as if the U.S. industry has finally gone careening like a giant idiotic boulder down a huge mountainside with no brakes and certainly no will to reverse course. General Motors, once the world-dominating auto company, has just gone out of business, leaving its employees marooned. Chrysler and Ford may soon follow. Failure to make better products and to embrace new technologies is to blame, as is most certainly collusion with the oil industry. We are seeing the total collapse of an industry through reluctance to move in a responsible, forward-thinking way.  Since seeing this film at a snowy winter midnight screening, it has resonated more and more to me as a timely and poignant powerhouse of a movie.

It should be said that I have been a fan of Clint Eastwood the actor all my life, even in the cheesy films like Every Which Way But Loose (“Right turn, Clyde!….”) and the weaker recent ones like Bloodwork. I guess I’ll watch him in anything. He’s always been a favorite action hero. More recently, specifically since Unforgiven, I have watched all of his directorial films and witnessed a great progression and range of material. Starting in 1971, using skills he learned from director Don Siegel over the course of making five films together, he began directing on his own. Play Misty For Me is a powerful little thriller made on a small budget and no paycheck for Clint. It was a fairly successful start and is a real favorite of mine since I first saw it on a TV rerun in 1976. Since then, he’s directed great Westerns like Pale Rider and Unforgiven, excellent period dramas like Bird, a film about Charlie Parker, and The Bridges of Madison County, as well as top notch hits like Mystic River and Million Dollar Baby. In 2008 he had two films completed – Changeling, an underrated and chilling period thriller, and Gran Torino, a film that could be a capstone. He has hinted in recent interviews that it may be his last role as an actor. I hope not, but if that is true, he’s ended a long career triumphantly.

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The screenplay was written by Nick Schenk, surprisingly not a Hollywood insider but rather a first-timer who wrote the story sitting in a bar with friends in Minneapolis. Supposedly, material for the story developed over many years, from encounters with veterans he’d met on different jobs and Hmong people he worked with during a stint at a VHS factory in Bloomington, Minnesota. A blue collar guy, Schenk was interested in the plight of war vets and factory workers, but learning about the Hmong propelled the story in a new direction. The story of the mountain people of Laos, displaced during the Vietnam war and migrating from refugee camps in Thailand to the U.S. impressed him, and those he met revealed to him the fact of many Hmong who were recruited and fought alongside U.S. soldiers against the North Vietnamese. Details of their cultural traditions and family life also became known, and he came up with the scenario of Kowalski being drawn out of his isolation and prejudice through helping this family next door. The boy and his sister face tough problems, and Kowalski is the guy righting wrongs all through the story, both for them and himself.

When Clint got the screenplay, he decided to produce and direct it without any changes but for location. It would be set and shot in Michigan instead of Minnesota as Schenk intended. The story of Kowalski’s transcendence from hate for the world and his neighbors to redemption is classic and compelling, and watching Clint as Kowalski, it’s as if he’s infused all the best from his past roles to make this one indelible. It’s as personal as it gets in many ways, carrying a weighty message about ways of dealing with problems, understanding and sharing. By meeting his challenge and taking responsibility Kowalski is redeemed, in the process presenting a more realistic kind of hero, with more depth and certainly more human. It’s all there, some humor included, but this time the Dirty Harry style violent revenge is cleverly reworked so that Kowalski can make the ultimate sacrifice for people he once mistook for old enemies.

As the credits roll, Clint can be heard singing his ode Gran Torino, a gravelly, ghostly voice from beyond. It’s the final signature on the film, and while it’s sad, there is a feeling you get that as bad as things can be, life in this world is what you make of it. Time will march on, changes will happen, and if there’s a good reason to look at the past, it’s to guide us into the future and not live with old mistakes.