A short and pleasing article by Paul Constant in which the writer argues that Nic is the only truthful American actor.
A film with as much magic as Jeremy Kyle vomiting into a manilla folder; as much excitement as a race between an asthma inhaler and a dish cloth; and about as much charm as a juvenile delinquent painting roadkill with tippex, it’s Bangkok Dangerous. The box/ poster art for the film is perhaps the most interesting thing about it, with Cage looking like a human box, a square shoulder dropping down into a giant arm and hand, with a miniscule head perched atop the metallic-metal bulk of his chest. He looks like a flat, corrupted jpeg tearing itself out from a white-blue-gray cityscape that is all “glitched up”. Cheap dynamism via the graphic design for a discontinued energy drink. The title font is chunky and red with black lines scorched across it like skid-marks. Below that, the colour of explosions and… a hole blasted into the dvd case?! No, merely a CGI facsimile of shattered glass. However, if someone did shoot this dvd, they wouldn’t be arrested (being responsible for shooting the film however, is another matter).
In short, this is one of those action films that looks like a mediocre X-box racing game and deploys the ‘teal and gray’ palette to masquerade a gritty sophistication that it does not earn. The dialogue is composed of business talk and cod-philosophy that would only chime with the most chowder-headed of sociopaths. I regret to state that Bangkok Dangerous represents one of those rare instances in which Cage is truly phoning in his performance. Muscular, thinning-haired hitman Joe is a morose and serious man, requiring Cage to be slumped and frowny, rather than kinetic and wacky. We sense that he has a troubled past filled with killing people for money as he has a sad face. However, his face is sad in a manly way, like when men cry over the video for Johnny Cash’s cover of Hurt.
Joe is in Bankok for a final assignment, then he’s giving up the game. He hires local man Kong (Shahkrit Yamnarm) to do his grunt work. There is a recurring joke in which Kong insults Joe in Taiwanese, to Joe’s ignorance. Yamnarm, whose filmography includes a movie about a murderous ex-girlfriend, is suited to playing men with ogling eyes in a pretty face. In this film, his eyes ogle Aom, played by Panward Hemmanee, who does well in an under-developed role and, like Yamnarm, is also pretty. (It might just be that I find Cage unusually unattractive in this film, who looks like he would smell of sweat and cigarettes and farts in leather trousers, so I paid more attention than usual to finding the rest of the main cast appealing.)
Making Joe an appealing character would be a hard task since he is entirely humourless and Cage’s disappointingly listless acting was never going to make him a winsome protagonist. So, instead, Joe is pitched against an unwholesome and pathetic cast of sexual traffickers, drug addicts and the President of Thailand (no aspersions made by me, but the fact remains that the President of Thailand is one of Joe’s targets). Basically then, the film consists of an unlikeable man killing deeply unlikeable men, while wearing leather.
There is also a romance in the film between Joe and a deaf-mute pharmacist, Fon, played by Charlie Yeung. There are scenes between the pair which are sweet if you forget Joe’s occupation, such as a date involving elephant feeding and a visit to Fon’s mother; however, I may have only enjoyed these scenes as I like to see Nic smile. Fon’s disability is worth noting because in the Tai original by the Pang Brothers (who then directed their own American remake here, as with Michael Haneke and Funny Games) it was the hitman protagonist who was deaf. Fearful that not giving Nic any lines would affect his box-office draw, they introduced a girlfriend, blithely changing the script, without nay a care in the world. More information gleamed from Wikipedia is that Bangkok Dangerous was “the first film since Dickie Roberts: Former Child Star to debut at number 1 with such a low gross” of $7.8 million. I reliably inform you that these pop facts are more entertaining than the film itself. I cannot speak for Dickie Roberts.
To return where we came in, with the dvd box of Bangkok Dangerous, which fails to mention any of Cage’s previous box-office or critical successes (speaking, sadly, to the fact that the likes of Face Off or Leaving Las Vegas were by 2008 a distant memory) critic Alan Frank of the Daily Star claims that the film is “hugely entertaining”. To be frank Alan, it isn’t. At least Boy in Blue gave us some good puns. I felt uninspired watching this film.
P.S. Is it a rule that the more compulsory trailers there are at a start of a dvd the worse of a film it will be?
Sassy academic and dangerous friend Hollie has forwarded me to a delicious Guardian interview with Nic by Emma Brockes. The whole thing is a Michael Gove (ironic Cockney rhyming slang for ‘treasure trove’) of delight and worth savoring as one would a favourite cheese. Here is the link, but I will also excerpt some of the interview’s highlights for your delectation:
- On the revelations of secret NSA Internet monitoring: “I am paraphrasing Benjamin Franklin, one of my founding fathers, who said something to the effect that, ‘Those that would give up their liberty for a little bit of security deserve neither.’ And then I’ll quote myself: ‘The truth is always crucified.’ End quote.”
- On acting: “I invite the entire spectrum, shall we call it, of feeling. Because that is my greatest resource as a film actor. I need to be able to feel everything, which is why I refuse to go on any kind of medication. Not that I need to!”
- On The Wicker Man remake: “The fact that that movie has been so lambasted means there’s an inner trembling and power to that movie. It has become an electromagnetic movie!”
- Brockes, perceptively: “Like so much of what Cage says and does, this should be cheesy, but somehow it isn’t. It’s the fundamental Cage paradox: the guilelessness that makes his performance.”
It’s a great interview, partly because it covers a lot of bases and touches on Nic’s personal life, but also because it taps into Nic’s very American approach to acting as profession. Performance is about baring your soul, but rather than this being a wishy-washy thing, it’s all part of the job. You don’t have to – and indeed, shouldn’t – be precious about making art. Also, Nic is at his most post-ironic. He talks in sound bites, but those sound bites contain earnest truth. Nic is the kind of person who believes in redemption through the action film; the comic book as a talisman of childhood. Nic is willing to play fast and loose with his self-parody, of which he seems both aware and not simultaneously. He astutely notes that the Internet obsession with him (of which this blog is a part) is both affectionate and a little ironic, while at the same time claiming not to be a ‘computer person’. He’s somehow in on the joke and not all at once. He’s earnest, but knows that unchecked earnestness can seem daffy. He’ll assimilate what people say about him into his persona, while refuting these very same claims. He’s a post-modern pastiche of actor and celebrity but in a fun, accessible, human way that doesn’t have time for the kind of academic preciousness that I easily fall into. Dude keeps the balance.
The second link was given to me by my girlfriend and visual novel creator Rachael and it is a thing. Nic’s face on pokémon. “You gotta Cage ‘em all!”
There probably shouldn’t be much to say about this. It is fearsomely addictive and beguiling. Possibly even more so than Nic’s face on cats. What I find fascinating is that Nic’s face is recognisable even when reduced to its most iconographic elements: the striking eyebrows; the taut yet loose cheeks; the open mouth with white teeth showing; the striking eyes; the expressive sameness of the face. Nic’s face is an enigma that’s I’m never going to be able to get to the bottom of.
I don’t like vigilantes. I don’t like the way that they enact justice while simultaneously considering themselves immune from justice. I don’t like vigilantes like Patrick Drum who hunted down and killed two sex offenders so he could elevate himself from common criminal to hero. I don’t even like Travis Bickle. So, when Nic took on two vigilante roles in Trespass and Seeking Justice in 2011, I was dissatisfied with the man I love. When he had played vigilante super-hero Big Daddy in Kick Ass back in 2010, it was kind of cute… his performance as a man escaped from Hell seeking revenge in Drive Angry of the following year tickled me through its dunderheaded machismo. I was passably interested in the return of undead soul collector Ghost Rider last year. Basically though, Nic’s career had reached vigilante saturation point and I wanted out. During this barren period of departure, I took up meditation, fell in love and wrote two thirds of a graduate thesis. When my friend Tim drew my patriotic alter-ego Jingo-Force as a gift, I started to warm a little to the figure of the vigilante. But I still hadn’t forgiven Nic. What’s changed? I still refuse to watch Dexter and think that Death Note is of moral concern. However, I have not been uncharitable in observing Nic’s career. He ventured into voice-acting in a major motion picture with The Croods and this year is reunited once again with John Cusack in The Frozen Ground (a film in which Nic is not technically a vigilante because he’s a cop). More promising, has been the talk of Charlie Kaufman penning a musical about internet trolls in which a singing Cage might star. What has prompted this turn-around and return to ‘Cage Wisdom’ however has been two events. Firstly, my girlfriend Rachael and myself watched The Raven, in which John Cusack stars as Edgar Allen Poe. A diabolical killer is roaming the streets of Baltimore executing people through methods that recall the macabre tales of Edgar Allen. Unconstrained by a lack of police training, Poe joins the force when he realises that the love of his life (though, in a move that appeared cynically commercial, said love interest was *not* Poe’s adolescent cousin/ wife) is next to be targeted. Although The Raven lacked the inclusion of Poe’s greatest story ‘Hop-Frog’ about a dwarfish court jester who makes a flaming human chandelier via convincing several courtesans that eight people tied with rope covered with feathers resembles an orangutan, it was a daffy romp, but I couldn’t help thinking that Cusack was a little bit weedy, reserved and conventional in his portrayal of the great author… in short, he wasn’t Cage.
Secondly, I watched Brian De Palma’s Snake Eyes and enjoyed it a good deal more than I expected.
In Snake Eyes, Nic plays the fast shooting, fast talking, blood money embezzling (indeed, there is a literal motif of blood-stained money in the film), organised fight enthusiast Ricky ‘Slicky’ Santoros. Ricky is a man who doesn’t do stop-and-chats. He’ll eat a burger while talking on the phone and won’t care. Sure, he works as a cop, but he’ll also commingle with racketeers. Ricky crosses between all the different spheres of Altantic City’s Boardwalk Hall’s casino and boxing arena where Snake Eyes is set – sitting alongside politicians and celebrities in the stalls; extorting a crook for money round the back; waltzing his way into a boxer’s dressing room to catch a word with the champ, always movin’, striking a pose, always gabblin’. Ricky goes through life like he’s the ball in the tie-in pinball machine of a better Brian De Palma film.
Ricky tends to assume that everyone knows him and whenever a television camera so much as catches his ear lobe in extreme long-shot, he’ll be up on his feet performing. In order words, he’s a bit of jerk and a doofus. Nic plays Ricky with a loose-limbed swagger that sits somewhere between gawkiness and cool. We sense that he tries a little too hard. He’s spreading himself too thin. Ricky’s hair acts as a telling metonym for this. Sure, it’s perfectly sculpted in a greasy back-curve, but it’s also receding, the sideburns stubby and the hair gel clearly not premium grade. Likewise, Ricky’s shirt has an attractive brown flower motif, but it is also the colour of urine. His jacket looks like it would collect cat hairs real easy. But at the same time, he has an expensive watch. Imagine a high-school ticket scalp in a suit and tie. The lager lout who only drinks imported Belgium beer. Ricky is a schmuck who has gotten lucky many, many times… but now he’s about to roll snake eyes.
As Navy commander and diminished Tom Hands look-a-like Kevin Dunne (Gary Sinise) says to Ricky about Atlantic City, “This isn’t a beach town any more… it’s a sewer.” In Atlantic City, one is never 10 feet away from some kind of foul crime (like Ricky’s shirt ~ ho ho), corruption or intricate political conspiracy. Even as shady men kill other shady but more innocent men, life goes on as normal. Old ladies whittle away their pensions on unforgiving slot machines. Awful people spray champaign over each other in hotel rooms. A paying public pretends that the boxing match they watch isn’t rigged. This community where money talks and everyone has a chip on their shoulder and more on the table, is insular and self-contained. The vast bulk of the film’s running time takes place within Boardwalk Hall. This results in some bravado tracking shots and long takes and also keeps the viewer reminded of the inter-connectivity of the film’s events. All the characters exist within a tight network. Actions have repercussions.
The film – and here I include a spoiler warning – is essentially about a boxing match that is thrown to enable a political assassination. In as much as the film has themes, it is primarily concerned with the limits of male friendship, the difficulty of resisting bribes when money is amazing and the inherently subjective nature of memory and truth. In this way, Snake Eyes is like Rashomon set in a casino or a straight-to-video Caché, in that it revisits a pivotal event from different perspectives in an attempt to reach a kind of truth. However, while Japanese Rashomon and French art-house Caché suggest that truth is essentially illusive and unknowable, the American blockbuster Snake Eyes knows that if you watch an event enough times from enough CCTV monitors, you’ll eventually work out what’s what. To enable this, the aforementioned ‘pivotal scene’ is replayed over and over again from different camera angles – most innovatively, in a split-screen sequence. As hinted, this is not really a mechanism for analysing the nature of truth, but rather a tool for drip-feeding the audience clues about a murder, that enables the film to be confined to a single location. Though the repetition was in danger of becoming tedious, I enjoyed the relatively tight plotting this allowed, plus the emphasis upon on viewing and surveillance – meta-cinematic concerns beloved by films more worthy than Snake Eyes.
In casting Nic as a corrupt yet charismatic cop, Snake Eyes also recalls (and pre-dates) Herzog’s 2009 remake of Bad Lieutenant. However, the similarity may also be that both are films in which middle-aged men shout a lot. I guess that is a lot of films. Both Snake Eyes and Bad Lieutenant involve a hyper-masculine role for Nic, though Nic’s performance in the later work is the most intensely grizzled and teeth gnashing. Ricky is a bit more soft and rubbery, however he leaves the viewer in no doubt that he is ‘a man’ through his adherence to that unfortunate Indiana Jones school of treating women like Link treats Princess Ruto in Ocarina of Time. (If that simile was a little ambitious, it basically means treating the woman as a mild annoyance and then leaving her somewhere while the man goes about his manly business, returning later for a kiss and praise.) Perhaps the big question that Snake Eyes raises, is who does Rick love, America or the girl? (Carla Gugino in a well-performed but underdeveloped role) To Brian De Palma’s credit, the film never really resolves that question.
Although Snake Eyes has about as much depth as a tadpole and altogether is a daffy, slightly pointless affair, I fundamentally enjoyed its limited setting, ambitious camera movements and performance by Cage as a charismatic but irritating man. More important for me though was the fact that the film provides a critique of unfeeling government and even – at a stretch – the silencing of minority voices. The ending shot, upon which the credits are over-laid, is somewhat cryptically of some manual workers quietly and capably rebuilding Boardwalk Hall after an explosive finale. I didn’t understand the shot, but after spending so much time with government agents, high-fliers and celebrities, I was glad that the film ended with some humans who weren’t all about dark shades, 1st-class flights and classified weapons of mass destruction. Also, in aligning itself against militaristic government and corruption and portraying working men and women sympathetically (if fleetingly) Snake Eyes felt a little less swaggeringly right-wing than some of Nic’s more recent fare and brought him home, once again, to my heart.
Image taken from http://staticmass.net/deconstructing-cinema/deconstructing-cinema-snake-eyes-movie-1998/ which provides an earnest and intelligent analysis/ celebration of the film.
Now Nic, though God-like, is of the world and the world is a hard thing to encompass. God knows he tries! This is to say, there are (gasp ye heathens) non-Nic films which inspire, provoke and alarm me, not merely through their notable absence! Such a list is never perfect, but I hope you enjoy these short reviews none-the-same and feel compelled to watch these delightful, remarkable films that I set down before you:
One director per film for now!
1.) Braindead – Peter Jackson (1992)
A film so giddy and boisterous in its execution (ha!) that the viewer is swept along on a corn-syrup river of blood in spite of any aversions they may have! Phenomenally bloody, yet somehow surprisingly sweet, almost gentle in spirit, due to its 1950s setting and good natured, winsome protagonists. It’s a massively foregrounded Freudian tale of a grotesque Bad Mother and the Return of the Repressed, with enough globsome, gristly, ‘orrible stop-motion and puppetry to fill the London dungeons! Structurally, it’s perfect, with the ludicrous scenario escalating to hysterical levels… the action, when it gets going, proceeds up from the basement, up to a final monstrous show-down on the roof of the house, in which a zombie laden party is in full swing. The cinematography is deliciously inventive with lots of those canted close-ups on faces that Jackson would go on to make such great use of in the ‘Lord of the Rings’ films. Also, despite being a zombie film (albeit of a parodic and blackly humorous variety) the whole exercise is infused with with a wonderful light-heartedness and sense of fun. It’s as much about rebirth as it is about death, in the true tradition of the carnivalesque! Also, essentially, endlessly quotable: “Your mother ate my dog!”
A chirpy scene in which our hapless protagonist Lionel attempts to socialise zombie baby Selwyn by taking him for a jaunt in the park. Hilarity ensues:
2.) Alice (Něco z Alenky) – Jan Švankmajer (1988)
Since I wrote much of my MA dissertation upon this remarkable piece of filmmaking I could go cook-a-hoop in revelry over the greatness that the Czech alchemist of puppetry Švankmajer exhibits here. It’s less of an adaptation of ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’, than it is a remembrance, filtered through the neuroses and curiosities of childhood. Almost aggressively non-pastoral in its setting, Alice’s travels instead take her through cramped rooms in a dusty warehouse where the inhabitants of Wonderland crack into wheezing, clackity life. The White Rabbit, a cadaverous taxidermist’s nightmare constantly spilling sawdust out from its belly which it shovels back through its mouth, is a malevolent figure, snipping at Alice with his scissors and terrorising the other inhabitants as a stooge of the Red Queen. Some characters are more charming, such as the caterpillar, self-assembled from a darned sock, dentures and swivelling glass eyes. The sounds that echo through the dark hallways are hyper-real and resonant, as though they issue from the very materials themselves, or from deep in the belly of the building. The pacing is slow and dream-like, as though we were recounting our own memories of Alice under hypnosis. Subtle political sub-texts about the political repressions of later Communist period Czechoslovakia are interwoven throughout the film, but never to the detriment of the text. Importantly, there is no Cheshire Cat to befriend Alice or guide her on her journey – this discovery is all her own and ours too.
Here’s some clackity little skelebobs who want Alice (Alenka) out of the house:
3.) Eraserhead – David Lynch (1977)
Eraserhead and Wild at Heart vie for my attentions, but Eraserhead was one of the first films I bought on vhs back in Sixth Form (and doesn’t include Nic!) when I’d been staying up and discovered Jan Švankmajer late on Channel 4 and an entire world of troubling, compulsive cinema was opened up to me. Eraserhead strikes me as a very pure film, free from the irony that later refracts Lynch’s works into complex, contradictory forms. It is a simple story. Henry, who lives in an industrial wasteland (a grimily distorted version of Philadelphia, where Lynch was living when he conceived of the film) discovers that his girlfriend is pregnant. The baby that is born is a tragic, shrieking thing, deathly ill, needy and nightmarish. Henry is abandoned to look after the baby and the walls slowly close in around him. However, such a simple plot recap does no justice to a film, which plunges us within Henry’s phenomenological experience of this dark world in which he lives. Music – the tinkling, sadly optimistic, jazz piano of Fats Waller – always sounds as though its being played from some deep Victorian underpass. Smoke, steam and smog are ever present, clouding our view of the outside world, which seems dirty, deserted and derelict. Humans are dysfunctional and confusing and scare and bemuse us and our protagonist in equal measure. The horrors of childbirth are felt inside us, as though the film saddled us with the same ungodly responsibilities that are Henry’s own.
The only respite is a cherubic, puffy-faced lady who seems to live in Henry’s radiator, who sings assuringly “In Heaven everything is fine”… never has mumps seemed so comforting and yet so troubling!
WARNING: PLOT REVEAL (erm, sort of):
4.) The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser – Werner Herzog (1974)
Herzog is so entertaining in interview, with comments like chickens “…are the most horrifying, cannibalistic and nightmarish creatures in the world” and “The trees here are in misery; the birds are in misery… I don’t think they sing, they just scream in pain”, that it is almost easy to overlook his films, but when we do come to them, they are often gentler and more poetic than we might expect. Sure, there is a great deal of Will and Sturm und Drang that rages away against the landscape, but there are also long takes of nature bubbling away in silence as the wind rocks the trees. The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser is perhaps the most touching of all of Herzog’s works and the most haunting. It tells the sad tale of Kaspar Hauser, a 19th century German man who grew up among extraordinary privation so that he was barely able to speak and walk. Entering into German society at Nuremberg, nearly mute, with a letter that proclaimed him to want to be a cavalryman as his father was, Kaspar was socialised by well-meaning, rationalising men of the Enlightenment, but in doing so caused him as much sadness as they did joy. Herzog tells the story simply and sympathetically, but with a quietly jaundiced eye, though never closed to the wonders of the world. Nature speaks through the film, whispering more sense that do the eminently capable men. Bruno S, who grew up in situations not dissimilar to Kaspar’s own, inhabits the role with a beauty and commitment that is perhaps unparalleled within the history of cinema and his performance, augmented by Herzog’s delicate cinematography, can reduce me to tears.
The beginning of the film, which is sublime. “Don’t you hear? Don’t you hear the dreadful voice that screams from the whole horizon, and that man usually calls silence?”
5.) A Room for Romeo Brass – Shane Meadows (1999)
A very hard film to place generically, which shows through in its not-quite-right dvd cover, which suggests that it’s merely a boisterous coming of age tale with eccentricities – this barely tells the story, which is far sadder, richer and more complex than that. It is about the friendship between boys, but also how this is warped and elbowed out of place by a man who is very, very troubled. The three – the two boys and the man – form a friendship for a while, until anger and jealousy starts prising them apart. People in the film do their best. Parents are ineffectual and teachers dose asleep in bedside chairs. Friendship does find a way through, but it’s a difficult struggle and it leaves you feeling both touched and drained, because what one has seen has been very beautiful and very ugly all at once. A deeply under-appreciated film, I think, possibly because it has such an usual tone and the solutions it provides are deliberately compromised and uneven. Paddy Constantine, as the man Morell, provides a performance which is hilarious, endearing, heartbreaking, loathsome and wretched by parts, while still very much showing us one, distinctive, utterly individual, deeply flawed human being. Not a hero, or an anti-hero, just human.
Here he dances for the boys or maybe for himself:
6.) The Fly – David Cronenberg (1986)
Never before or since has a film been so relentlessly gloopy, icky and gristle laden and still remained utterly, imploringly romantic. That Cronenberg could make such a convincingly tragic film out of such B-movie source material is a testimony to the way that he can see the latent content within what might seem crude, shlocky or pornographic on the outside. A lot of sci-fi films merely sketch their premise, gesture towards its implications and throw in a lot of special effects… The reason The Fly is so brilliant is that its a remarkably intimate film, mostly taking place within our doomed hero’s apartment as he undergoes his wretching, disfiguring body transformation. Cronenberg teases us with the idea that this might be an evolutionary leap which endows Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum) with superhuman power and indeed, for a while, his human dna splicing with that of a fly provides exactly that. As he becomes more abject however he feels his humanity slipping away from him. What makes the film so effective is that we aren’t presented with a binary, like with Jeckell and Hyde, but with a decent man slowly becoming brutal and inhuman, struggling against the insectoid impulses that are buzzing ever louder within his brain. As Seth asks his girlfriend, “Have you ever heard of insect politics? Neither have I.” Cronenberg’s script is gloriously witty and inventive. “A deep penetrating dive into the plasma pool” indeed!
The oarsomely 80s trailer… Be afraid, be very afraid!
7.) My Winnipeg – Guy Maddin (2007)
Like Cronenberg above, Maddin is a Canandian, but one forever in thrall to his native Winnipeg, which holds him in a cold, sleepy grasp, which he never seems able to escape. Returning once again to his home city, Maddin seeks to question this return in a phantasmic documentary filmed, as is his wont, in the style of the 1920s avant-garde, that floods us with truths and half-truths about the city with the highest sleepwalking population in the world. Peppered through the films like bad seeds are recreations of the most potent childhood encounters with his mother, played by camp icon Ann Savage, which are ludicrous, ecstatic displays of gothic melodrama. The film flits into colour for its most impassioned sequences, but mostly remains in a crisp black & white, occasionally fogging over with the remembrance of things past. My Winnipeg is very funny in parts, but none the less personal for it. The critics who claim that Maddin is a charlatan do not feel their past as acutely as we who love him do.
The extremely popular series LEDGEMAN in which Maddin’s mother starred:
8.) Coraline – Henry Selick (2009)
Adapted from the modern day fairy story by Neil Gaiman, this is a cavalcade of stop-motion wizardry that barely lets up! This represents the culmination of Selick’s considerable talents displays through his career – the spindlestick, balletic, lightfooted animated form of Jack Skeleton from ‘The Nightmare Before Christmas’ is resurrected in the bulkier form of circus mouse trainer Mr. Bobinski; the cubism-inspired facial designs of ‘James and the Giant Peach’ and his early ‘Slow Bob in the Lower Dimensions’ provide the subtle slanting of Coraline’s face and the oddly cocked heads throughout film; the carnivale darkness of ‘Monkeybone’ is lightened, but does not lose its colour. It’s an adventurous film and certainly strong stuff for young children. A great deal of the film’s power to unnerve derives for Selick’s sophisticated play with the notion of ‘anima’. Much of Coraline takes place in an uncanny, ‘other’ world, like her own home, but not. Here, everything is simulcra conjured up by the evil Other Mother to snare Coraline and transform her into an eyeless ghost child, along with the unfortunates she has already trapped. Since this world is not real, the landscape can morph and fragment into pixels; a character blows his hand away like so much dust; by the end, any vestiges of this world have fallen away and we find ourselves in the void of white space. The film makes the best use of 3D I have ever encountered in the cinema. Coraline’s real home is flattened in its drabness, while the exciting “other” home is given dramatic depth-of-field, as though sprung to three dimension life (despite its hidden, essential flatness). There is a great density of thought on display here – so much has been thought through so thoroughly and I have barely touched upon the sheer craftsmanship of the animation, tastefully augmented with GCI, that just delights and enraptures me again and again as though I too were a little child braving the film.
Frankly almost every scene strikes me as remarkable, but I’m particularly fond of the ghost children:
9.) Being John Malkovich – Spike Jonez and Charlie Kaufman (1999)
Speaking of density of thought, Being John Malkovich is like a hypertext, so rich it is in symbolic and thematic meaning. As soon as you have clocked it as a meditation on the nature of celebrity, it reveals itself as concerned with the very nature of self – a multifaceted thing for sure, displaced and mediated by advertisement, creative acts, love and celebrity itself and we are brought back full circle. It is a hard film to get a grip on intellectually, yet a clear film to follow narratively, despite complexities. This may be due to the fact that the performances are all so clear sighted and individualised through their mannerisms and demeanours. We have the pretentious, self-pitying puppeteer; the cruel and manipulative office worker; the animal loving wife; and finally Malkovich himself. Purportedly, Malkovich was a bit disturbed when he first read the screenplay about a portal being discovered that allows journeyers privileged access into his head. What had he done to piss screenwriter Kaufman off, he wondered! Yet, he enters gamely into the role, sending himself up as a precious, slightly schmucky actor, who is misrecognised by almost everyone he meets. He then has to perform himself being puppeteered by, firstly, another human being lodged within his brain… then finally, about 50. The fact that he pulls this off is one of the great feats of cinematic acting.
I wouldn’t normally direct people to the endings of films, but this is my favourite ending of all time. It takes a silly idea and makes it richly poetic and haunting. To quote Adam Cadre; “Being John Malkovich is a story in which the protagonist gets physically and emotionally beaten up for an hour and a half and then is essentially sent to hell for eighty or ninety years. And it’s complex enough to convey that horror through beautiful shots of an innocent little girl swimming.” I can’t find the exact clip and one should really watch all of it, so here’s Cartel Burwell’s (my favourite film composer) music from it:
10.) Crimewave – John Paisz (1985)
A recently discovery which I am so glad I have made. It is the closest thing to a film I would make if I had the time and resources. It tells the story of a quiet man, Steven Penny, played enigmatically by Paisz himself, who is trying to write the greatest colour crime move ever told, but is having problems with the middle. The film repeats itself through interpolated sequences of his botched attempts. The film is manic, yet filmed in a very understated manner with long, still takes and a manner that recalls kitschy educational documentaries from the 50s. Increasing its charm manifold is the eager-eyed, slightly stilted and cheery performance by Eva Kovacs as the screenwriter’s perpetually inquisitive neighbour. Their friendship is one of the loveliest things about the whole wonderful mad enterprise. I get giddy just thinking about the film.
Here is how it opens. Once upon a time…
Obviously 10 is an arbitrary number. One a different day Fassbinder’s Effi Briest (1974) otherwise known as something like ‘Fontane’s Effi Briest or Many of Those Who Have an Idea of Their Capabilities and Their Needs and Still Accept and Conform to the Ruling System in Their Heads by Their Deeds and Thus Strengthen it Thoroughly” would have made the list as I love its way of interrogating the late 19th century novel from which it is adapted. The cinematography is rigorously beautiful and makes the greatest use of mirror shots that I, for one, have ever encountered. Also, Fassbinder was wrong to criticise the glorious Hanna Schygulla for her sympathetic and nuanced performance, which brings real life to melodrama in the most memorable of ways.
Others worthy of laudation: Heavenly Creatures, Repulsion, Videodrome, Mulholland Drive, The Elephant Man, Aguirre: Wrath of God, Fata Morgana, Woyzeck, Hausu, Dead Man’s Shoes, Once Upon a Time in the West, Ghosts Before Breakfast, Nosferatu, Tartuffe, Fargo, The Big Lebowski, Barton Fink, Deep End, Ghost World, Tetsuo: Iron Man, Closely Observed Trains, Faust (Svankmajer’s and Murneau’s), Little Otik, Annie Hall, The Shining, Paths of Glory, Full Metal Jacket, Weekend, Le Mepris, Chinatown, Susperia, Haxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages, Bigger Than Life, In a Lonely Place, Chinatown, Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, Kiki’s Delivery Service, Cat Soup, Mind Game, Angel’s Egg, Ikiru, Rashomon, A Canterbury Tale, A Matter of Life and Death, Jules et Jim, Idioterne, Withnail and I, The Falls, Zed and Two Noughts, Prospero’s Books, Night of the Hunter, Metropolis, Brazil, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Sedmikrásky… I could go on.
I have never been assaulted by the moon, but this lack of familiarity with lunar pugilism did not stop me from enjoying Moonstruck; a film we at Cage Wisdom offer up to you like a fatted calf to Diana at the Festival of Torches! No more shall our blogging prowess wane sunken in the sky like an anaemic disc of that skin that forms on milk, but instead shall rise engorged like a giant white mosquito, ready to buzz its way back into your affections.
Moonstruck is a dreaming; its plot a wispy, fleeting shadow play of semi-articulated nigglings, that moves between scenes of varying import without nay a care in the world! While my dreams dramatize David Bowie’s hit 1990s come-back single “I’m Addicted to Paracetamol” (Euro-pop crossed with bursts of Prince style funk guitar with Bowie at Ashes to Ashes baritone range) Moonstruck focuses not on Bowie (Labyrinth, 1986) but Cher; that long-legged, long-faced, arch and slinky Priestess of Inscrutable Allure. Cher plays Loretta Castorini, who IMDB informs me is a book-keeper, although I don’t personally recall any book-keeping montages. That said, even the wikipedia page for book-keeping has an embedded excel spreadsheet, so I assume that any montage sequence was so intensely boring that I filed it away along with Ceefax and all the other sludge that sits at the bottom of my brain stem (admittedly, Ceefax does have its sedentary charms). Loretta has been recently widowed and this is played delicately by Cher, with a guarded confidence that makes her seem vulnerable. She very open in bantering with friends and family, but plays her Queen of Hearts close to her chest (I mean she is not forthcoming about love). Her boyfriend, Johnny “The Calamari” Cammareri is not a bad man, but neither is he an interesting one. Now, it might be said that Cher should do as Fanny Price in Mansfield Park and choose moral conventionality over more enticing derelict fare… however, when the man who is proclaiming the counter argument that, “We are here to ruin ourselves and to break our hearts and love the wrong people and die” is Nicolas Cage… well old Johnny Calamari is going to be rolling snake eyes.
I haven’t seen much in the way of romantic comedies so I went into this like a lamb in a newly-pressed sailor suit, but what I got the impression of from this film, is that romantic comedies is all about opposites. Am I on the right tracks? Well, Moonstruck seems to me to be primarily about two differing conceptions of romance – romance as a means of discourse and romance as passion. Loretta and much of her family and indeed her boyfriend Johnny are stuck within the mode of discourse. They talk things through and express their affection for family through ritualistic gestures, like cooking oatmeal. This is sturdy and reliable and helps to strengthen the family unit, but talk can also lead to miscommunication and rituals can become empty and formulaic. The most repeated refrain within the film, especially within Loretta’s Italian-American family, is “I don’t want to talk about it.” When Johnny proposes to Loretta near the start of the film he grumbles about dirtying his suit and then reveals he hasn’t bought a ring… and there is nothing more unappealing than a man getting dirty without his ring on display. This is what Cage Wisdom endorses! (it might be noted that, I, Adam am writing this review without Jay).
Like poorly judged innuendo, these romantic gestures are inarticulate without passion, yet passion on its own without a mode of appropriate discourse, is equally emasculated. After Johnny proposes to Loretta he jets off to his mother’s death bed (ah! The maternal bed instead of the marital bed! Oh romantic comedies, what are you like?), requesting before he does so that Lorreta contact his estranged brother Ronny and make peace. Yet Ronnie works in the basement of a pizzeria (I really hope it was a pizzeria and I’m not just a horrible racist) where he is employed as a dough shovelin’ man. My understanding of how this is portrayed is that it is the 80s Brooklyn equivalent of working as a navvy on the Victorian railroads. It is hot, doughy, manly work that has a similarly high fatality rate. Ronnie got lucky and got away easy, with just a hand gone, but some guys… well let’s just say that the incident was only resolved through involvement of the Neapolitan police.
Ronny “could never love anybody since he lost his hand and his girl.” He blames the bad hand he got in life on his bulky yet well-meaning brother; claiming that Johnny distracted him with his mouth and tongue and blasted vocal chords and the next thing you know, his hand was trapped in the machine. Effect follows cause. Now, Loretta quite reasonably points out that this wasn’t really Johnny’s fault and that really not speaking to your brother for 5 years because he spoke to you at an inopportune time, might be construed as a little grouchy. Well, Ronnie, like many great early Cage characters, ain’t a man of much sense! He proclaims as much; “I ain’t no freakin’ monument to justice! I lost my hand! I lost my bride! Johnny has his hand! Johnny has his bride!” Of course, by the end of the film Johnny will no longer have his bride, but I’ll leave it a mystery as to whether he’ll still have his hand…
As this enraged, though admittedly factual outburst reveals, Ronnie is the first character we encounter who doesn’t like jabbering on, unless it’s underlined by a good angry point at something or there is a table nearby to be knocked over as punctuation. Cage has stated in interview that he wanted to play Ronnie like the Beast in Jean Cocteau’s adaptation of Beauty and the Beast (La Belle et la Bête, 1946). Cage is clearly not talking about hairiness, but about the grace within the beast and a strength that must be tempered by love. As first, Ronnie is all resolve and no gentleness, like a Lion Bar, but by the end of the film he’s become a Snickers – still retaining some of his previous bite, but with a less demanding nougat base to traverse. The peanuts might still get stuck in the teeth on occasions, but importantly it’s not a bar that looks out of place within the family home (it might even make it as far as the child’s lunch box, on a parent-teacher day, for instance). By the end of the film this unkempt dough chucker, who I believed upon seeing a screenshot before the film to be a werewolf, has settled down to a bowl of oatmeal with the family.
Due, I suspect, to a genuine fondness on the part of screenwriter John Patrick Shanley for the stereotype of the Italian-American who lives with their squabbling but affectionate extended family, Loretta’s paternal home is the hub for much of the film’s main action and where we meet the eccentrics, romantics and melancholics who comprise her family. An interesting facet of the film, which contributes to its pleasant tone of inconsequentiality, is a tendency to cut from the main storyline and our heroes Cage and Cher, to the romantic tribulations of family and friends. While the main thrust of the plot is predictable, it would be remiss for me to reveal the plot developments concerning these other character, which often caught me more by surprise. Particularly moving was the plot concerning Loretta’s mother Rose, played by Olympia Dukakis in a role that justifiably earnt her an Acadamy Award, Bafta and a Golden Globe (OK, so only Nic’s performance in Vampire’s Kiss really deserves all three, but nonetheless it is a very fine performance). She is a woman who has given up her dreams for her family and in doing so repressed a personality far richer and deeper than that of her husband. This weariness doesn’t swamp her tenderness for her family, but somehow they hold each other in place – as though neither could quite exist without the other. There are also moments in which she seems very beautiful and I think the film succeeds in wanting you to see her sexually and emotionally satisfied, which is a worthy feat considering that she’s a secondary, not primary character. What is made clear by the film, is that mature love is no less turbulent or fascinating than young love. Cher’s character herself is already into her late 30s at the time of the film. Thus, while the film may be breezy, is doesn’t feel fickle or insidiously superficial. Loretta’s elderly grandfather (Louis Guss) who trots around the film with a legion of dogs, remarks that there is no-one to hold affection for him, reminding us that the old still lust and desire (one of the unsung verses from The Flaming Lips’ Do You Realise?, concerned this perhaps; a song that reminds us of things that seem banal when merely known, but meaningful when truly realised. The Flaming Lips clearly considered themselves too cool to include a verse about the romances of the old. Shame on them).
In mentioning the song I realise a useful segue because one of Wayne Coyne’s most remembered lines from that song is “Do you realise that everyone you know some day will die?” Literally, everyone! EVEN CHER! This is the kind of sentiment that the film reminds us of in its ruminations. The film of course starts on a bereavement and death never wholly leaves the picture. One of the repeated pieces of wisdom is that men chase women in order to escape death. Embodying this is a schmucky lecturer who I was going to write looks like Marty from Fraiser, until I discovered that he is Marty from Fraiser (John Mahoney) but with different inflections and characteristics! Having sufficiently grasped the concept of acting, I turned my attention once more to Cage.
As said, Ronnie is not one of them ‘word-speaking’ men, until his mad, exemplary little monologue at the end of the film that woos Loretta. When Loretta first means him, he cuts her off and his speech is punchy and tumbles out of him like meaty acrobats. He speaks in awkward proverbs and slicks back his hair. Surrounded by the incantatory Italian language, Ronnie’s broader, more Americanized accent makes him sound grounded in a fundamentally different way to the other characters. While the other characters are tied to the family home through conversation, ritual and exchange, Ronnie is cut-off in his subterranean furnace room, like the Phantom of the Opera. As ever with Cage, the devil in the woodpile is emasculation and Ronnie starts the film with a wooden hand that caused (or so he believes) his fiancé to leave him. Whether the loss of a hand should stand as a true signifier for lost manhood, Ronnie proclaims and menaces and kicks out in the first half of the film in the pre-emptive knowledge that this is precisely how the loss of his hand is going to be read. Behind this bravado we know there’s a soft heart though because while Cage’s body is all muscles and gesture, his eyes are always soft and apologetic, even at his most raging. It may sound glib, but I was genuinely impressed by Nic’s ability to maintain his eyes like this across the film… I feel his ability to continue an expression or an action across a film, like a heraldic tag that follows a character, is what helps him create such strong archetypes.
Contrariwise from castration, Ronnie’s wooden hand also shows that he has suffered for passion, unlike his brother. The other testament to Ronnie’s alignment with passion over discourse is a prime piece of character development: “I love two things. I love you and opera.” This passion leads to the most compelling romantic sequence in the movie in which Ronnie and Loretta attend the opera together to watch a performance of La Bohème. Waiting outside for Loretta in his suit and tie, Ronnie looks suddenly very young. Though there is still a toughness about him, his excitement for the opera makes him child-like – both husky and goofy. At the opera we see that Ronnie is able to conduct himself as a Prince, not the Beast, and so is able to enter into the world of discourse through the world of passion. For Loretta, who has been a fast-talker throughout the film who calls the shots, this position is now reversed, as she attends opera for the first time and struggles to comprehend what is being sung. Through being forced into a state of inarticulacy she can now engage with the opera on a purely passionate level and by the time the arias draw to a close, there is a close-up of her face as the tears run down her cheeks – the most interest the camera has shown in Cher’s face up to this point (a shame, as I felt it should have better honoured her face’s immutable slightly confrontational quality… Cher is like an inverted Shelley duVall). The scene also reminds us that the film itself is an opera – passion and music. In the backdrop on the stage is a fake painted moon; though as the inimitable Lula of Cage-a-lot Castle raised in an online discussion, perhaps the moon on stage is the real moon and the romance of Loretta and Ronnie the opera.
The camera is suitably gentle for a film like this – choosing long-takes and unobtrusive pans and cuts that lead us quite softly and sometimes poetically from scene to scene. My favourite cut in the film was from the moon seen from one perspective, to the moon seen from another perspective, from another part of town. This large moon often forebodes the action of Moonstruck, as though the moon were drawing these characters apart and together upon romantic tides. Characters talk about the moon a lot during the film. It is described as being “the size of a house”, which seems absurd until you remember that a house can be much larger than its bricks and mortar and the families in Moonstruck feel very expansive. It is also described as “white as a snowball”, in evocation of the purity of the moon. Indeed, the moon is very white after Ronnie and Loretta’s first night together. Despite the amount of discourse that goes on about the moon, it seems to rule through passion. Stories are told about amorous encounters under the full moon, that seemed fated and are fated to happen again. We see various colours of the moon – red, white, pink, orange, cream – all boding perhaps different things. The moon and the home (or together as captured in the moon “the size of a house”) become the narrative nexus of the film, that return us to and connect members of the family. The use of That’s Amore on the soundtrack makes this seem like a specifically Italian (American) phenomenon. This is the “luna belle” that Loretta’s grandfather speaks of, getting his dogs to howl at the moon.
Flannery O’Connor, who surely puts the ‘wisdom’ in Cage Wisdom, has no place amongst all this softness (forcing her into this review would be like trying to cram a crow into a dress), but I have another 50s American short story writer who does, John Cheever. Those magical nights where the moon is white and fat in the sky and lovers are tugged towards each other as in A Midsummer Nights Dream, are the nights Moonstruck wishes to capture. Since this is an elegantly written film, tactfully directed, with two great leading performances, there are moments in the film that succeed in transporting us to such a night; “a night where kings in golden suits ride elephants over the mountains.” Thanks John.
Adam here, having escaped from the mire of insurance sales and primed to bound back into Cage’s saddle! From hibernation we at Cage Wisdom blink our beady eyes and from our grubby mitts issue a collaberative effort between myself and Justin Bailey, artiste extraordinaire! You can see more of Justin’s remarkable art and hip-hop remixes at:
This dude is rude!