Tag Archives: 90s

Con Air (1997)

15 Apr

The best round of “Nicolas Cage charades” I’ve ever seen was my friend Chris miming out ‘Con Air’. From his mime one might have guessed that ‘Con Air’ is a film about money-grubbing charlatans (Con) and wafty nymphettes (Air) set in a casino-cum-windmill (Con Air).  A sort of Nicolas Cage Moulin Rouge, perhaps. If one was also very literal minded one would also be of the impression that Con Air is totally silent. A hushed, quiet sort of affair.

This is why you should never trust charades. Con Air is the guy you’re sat next to on the plane who wears aviator shades and belches out the alphabet while playing electric guitar.  And you should thank your lucky stars that it’s a relatively short flight of 115 minutes because he is not the kind of guy who is going to simmer down after 20 minutes with an in-flight magazine. No, now he’s ripping off his seatbelt, joining the Mile High Club, singing the National Anthem, punching out the pilot, taking the controls. He stinks because he wears vodka as aftershave. Con Air is a film universally hated by Quakers the world over, which is why I, and not Jay, am reviewing it.

‘Con Air’ is the slang name affectionately given to the Justice Prisoner and Alien Transportation System in America, which flies convicts between penitentiaries. Convicts are seated together, restrained, sometimes harnessed or gagged and members of rival gangs kept separate. Onto such a flight steps Cameron Poe (Cage). A decent sort of bloke who only did what he did (manslaughter) cause he was protecting his blonde-haired blue-eyed wife (Monica Potter). At the time of the offense she was pregnant, but now she has given birth to a doe-eyed lil’ bundle of aryan innocence (Landrey Allbright) who writes her daddy letters in crayola while he’s in the slammer. Cameron just wants to get home to see his little girl! He’s even bought her a stuffed bunny he’s going to give her when they meet for the first time! Too bad then that Cameron is strapped into a flight with some of the loathesomest, hardest-bitten crooks and perverts the wrong side of the Mississipi fault-line. The unlikely ringleader of these thugs is Cyrus “The Virus” Grisson (John Malkovich), a sort of fey and eloquent (by Con Air‘s standards) Charles Bronson, who hijacks the plane, potentially jeopardising Cameron’s family reunion. It’s up to Cameron in the air, and U.S. Marshall Vince Larkin (John Cusack) on the ground, to seize back the plane with maximum machismo and aplomb.

Con Air is not a thinking man’s film, made more for gawping at than for studying. As such, from hereon I’m going to do as the film does and keep the review mostly pictorial, cutting in with glib and sassy remarks along the way!

Here’s our golden lion, his hair blowing in the air with the sweet waft of freedom! The chest hair that so enamored Jay in her review of Honeymoon in Vegan, is on partial display here. Any grey around the stubble or temples testifies to a worldliness that has yet to become weariness, as evidenced by Nic’s blue-eyed gaze towards the sky. This jailbird is lookin’ to be a freebird.

An over-credits training montage shows Nic, like a steam-powered Mr. Motivator, tauten his body into perfect beefy right-angles. The lanky Nicolas Coppola of the 80s has died, to be resurrected by a taxidermist, who’s stuffed him as full as a three-piece-suite. If you squeezed those deltoids – say, in the affectionate embrace of love – they wouldn’t yield an inch. To quote Rumsey Taylor of the inimitable notcoming.com, “motherfucking shit is he ripped.”

But since this is Nic, you can be sure that the steak isn’t served without a side-dollop of sensitivity. Not only is Cameron Poe built like a brick shithouse made of vikings, he’s got the heart of a champion to match! Here we see him contemplating his own handiwork after time spent with the ‘Big Boy’s Book of Origami’.

Now I’m not going to criticise an 8-year-old for lack of effort, but it seems lil’ miss Poe was working to a word count. An ambivalence about the homecoming of her father suggested by the insincere platitudes (I can’t wait) and the cursory hearts will become only more apparent when we meet the little girl. However, for now, this is our primary narrative impetus and the reason for Nic to get rude with dudes and sort shit out.

This represents Poe’s secondary motivation, to look out from his fellow inmate and diabetes-sufferer Mike O’Dell (Mykelti Williamson). Considering that O’Dell suffers from diabetes, it might seem peculiar that the friendship between the pair has been built upon the exchange of sugar-rich coconut puffs, but then we don’t know whether O’Dell’s diabetes began before or after his incarceration. Some heavy product placement fees must have been paid to convince Jerry Bruckheimer that ‘snoballs’ and ‘snoballs’ alone can overcome man’s basic inhumanity to man.

Cage himself was paid in snoballs and it is remarkable that he could retain his olympian body shape while gorging himself silly upon the pink muck™.

Admiring a car with a gratuitous number plate in an obscenely wide-angled shot, is Vince Larkin, played by John Cusack, pasty-faced heart throb of sappy 80s romance movies. Larkin is the white-collar bureaucrat whose job it is to get the hijacked plane safely back to land while preserving his moderate left-wing ethos as far as possible. What he will learn over the course of the film is that to save the day and thus save oneself from emasculation (that terrible threat of Nic’s mid-to-late career that haunts his characters like the spectre of lanky Nicolas Coppola) is to be as much like Cameron Poe as possible. To this end he must learn to use a gun, steal a car – as pictured above – and get real mad. It will be a tough journey as immediately apparent from some comparitive screengrabs.

This is how Nic escapes from danger, like a hulking one-track terminator. Witness the squinty determination. His well-oiled body is a lean, mean, running machine. There is no doubt of his self-control and incomparable manliness.

Oh dear! Arms a-flailing, sensible hair ungainly tussled, shirt clean no longer, Cusack looks a sorry sight. We are less likely to think heroism, than we are office party gone awry.

Even when Nic vaults over a fuck-off metal pipe, he keeps his arms perfectly straight, forming a perfect 90 degree angle. His fingers are splayed perfectly apart and his whole body is taut. Not less than a fingernail is under complete subordination of the will. Where there isn’t meat and sweat, there is hair and denim. He’s grappling with the air itself.

This is Cusack tackling a very similar move. I would laugh if it were funny. The mouth gawks open into a moronic grin while his akimbo arms recall ‘I’m A Little Teapot’ performed in the heat of battle. Moreover, he’s clicking his heels together like some lucky charms leprechaun. His hair is also distinctly non-awesome when compared to Nic’s. The man is a shambles.

Nic can even get blown up and looks like he’s the one who’s fucking up the explosion, rather the explosion fucking up him. He makes it look easy to strike a Superman pose while being hurled through the air. Nic Cage surrounded by money with an explosion behind him looking like a mad blue-collar Superman is the American Dream.

Less a blue-eyed boy than a black-eyed beast. With hair sprouting from every crevice and his own and other men’s blood staining his bulging deltoids, Nic grimaces like the Incredible Hulk having his chest waxed. Whether or not you like Con Air, in shots like these it reaches some kind of monumental apex of the action film.

Cusack can but concede defeat, puffing his chin out like a diminished bullfrog. His left hand falls limp by his side, while his right hand is clamped in the rigorous clasp of the victorious Cage, who manages to do all this with a pink bunny rabbit stuffed under his arm.

I was going to write a great deal more on this rabbit, but someone got there quite magnificently before me, so I shall like Cusack graciously concede defeat and supply you with the link, leaving you with the image of Nic driving a tractor away from an explosion. Happy Easter!

For an analysis of the pink bunny motif and a picture of Poe’s lil’ daughter looking thoroughly troubled visit: http://www.hellonearth.com/movies/conairpix1.html

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Honeymoon in Vegas (1992)

31 Mar

After watching Honeymoon in Vegas last night, I had a dream that I myself was Nicolas Cage, and I was wearing a kilt and brazenly showing off my muscular calves to a troop of admiring schoolgirls. Of course, Cage doesn’t wear a kilt in Honeymoon in Vegas – he wears an Elvis costume, completing the Elvis diptych begun in 1990’s Wild at Heart.  It’s the Elvis costume, coming only in the last 20 minutes of the film that puts Honeymoon in Vegas in the passion portion of the venn diagram, and Cage seems to be having a ball when he gets to improbably win back the woman of his dreams through a sky-diving Elvis extravaganza.

Cage plays Jack Singer, a man who is emasculated in the first five  minutes of the film when his mother, lying on her deathbed, makes him promise that he will never get married because ‘No girl could ever love you like I did!’ . In Peter Jackson’s brilliant film Braindead, hero Lionel’s mother utters a very similar sentence to him; the difference being that she says it at the end of the film, rather than the beginning, and that Lionel’s mother is a 15 foot tall reconstituted zombie, opening the cavernous maw of her womb to slide her rebellious son back in once and for all.

"No-one will ever love you like your mother, Lionel!"

Jack Singer foolishly promises the coddling harridan that he will never marry, and so embarks on a fearsome battle against the frenzied ticking of his girlfriend Betsy’s biological clock.* When a casino sleazeball resembling an evil Gene Wilder falls in lust with Betsy, Singer’s emasculation grows tenfold, and his subsumed aggression is released in staccato hand gestures and erratic bouts of shouting. There are traces of Vampire’s Kiss in Cage’s performance – in a scene in which Betsy reveals that she is going for a weekend in Hawaii with the sleazeball, Cage pleads, prowls and menaces to Sarah Jessica Parker’s admirable unconcern.


The slightly unhinged performance is given a virility by Cage’s abundant body hair, generously smothering his chest and arms in unusual profusion. Not in this film are the burnished bronze expanses of The Boy in Blue and Ghostrider, here Cage is hairy as a modest bear. At times, he seems to put on a New York accent to fit in with his humorous gambling cronies, butt of many a fat joke throughout the film’s 90 minutes. It’s hardly consistent, but perhaps helps to lend Jack Singer’s claim that ‘I’m an everyman!’ some kind of credence. In any case, the New York accent disappears entirely when he puts on the Elvis suit, flexes his hip and delivers his lines in the drawl familiar from Wild at Heart. It’s in the Elvis costume that Cage seems to come alive, he’s magnetic, even sexy – perhaps the more so in contrast to his previous costumes in the film, all patterned shirts and long beige cardigans that make him look like a Chris Ware caricature of Nicolas Cage .

The ending is a top-class crazy random happenstance, but kind of delightful anyway. Cage somehow makes it work; who wouldn’t (you find yourself thinking) forgive their selfish, gambling-addicted, commitment phobic boyfriend if he laconically fell out of a plane, gazing soulfully up at you from under his flirty Elvis eyebrows?

And who wouldn’t (you begin to ponder) forgive Nicolas Cage his odd blunder when he sky-dived over Vegas, dressed as Elvis Presley, lit down on a landing pad like an illuminated celestial moth and gazed into your bemused yet delighted eyes, languidly inclining his head as if to say: ‘I’m all yours audience, all yours’.

* All sexism in the sentence is irony accredited.

Guarding Tess (1994)

14 Mar

Emasculated Cage throws a chair

Before watching Guarding Tess we believed that a Nicolas Cage film couldn’t be boring*, but Guarding Tess feels as though it was shot on a succession of rainy Sunday afternoons, with a cast listlessly doing their homework the day before it’s due in…. It feels as though it was written by a white-collar civil servant as he died stuck in an lift, in blood, on the walls. Out of respect they filmed it. To capture the feeling of Guarding Tess without having to watch it, we at ‘Cage Wisdom’ advise you to press play on the video link below and feel the wave of melancholy wash over you as you read the following…

As immediately discernible from the dvd box, in which a suited Cage stands serious behind a wry and ironical looking older stateswoman, Guarding Tess follows some days in the life of secret service agent Doug Chesnic (Cage) in his job of guarding former First Lady of the U.S. of A. Tess Carlisle (Shirley MacLaine). Before we sat down to watch Guarding Tess, we made a few predictions for this “comedy beyond the call of duty”:

    1. There will be a scene where Cage has to hold Tess’s handbag in a public place, to emasculating effect.
    2. Tess will make innuendos not befitting a woman of her age.
    3. There will be a shopping sequence, to emasculating effect.
    4. They will walk dogs, and people shall trip over leads.
    5. Tess will accidentally hit Doug in the balls with a hand-bag.
    6.There will be a serious bit at the end where she actually gets kidnapped by terrorists.
    And most importantly…
    8. She’ll teach him how to let down his crew-cut and have a good time.

In the event of the film, only 3, 6 and 8 turned out to be true… although to call what transpired the “good time” anticipated by the overly-optimistic point 8, would be to guild a very boring lilly.

It is a very boring film. At one point we see a two second close-up of a document printing, and the script has the unfortunate habit of having Cage repeat exactly what’s been said in the previous scene to a different character, perhaps to give the audience a chance to reflect on the good times they’ve had. We cut from a comedy golf scene, shot on some desolate windswept moor, to Cage in a cafe aggressively repeating the dialogue to a cornered bystander:  ‘And then I said – I’m not getting your goddamn ball!’,  ‘Uh-huh’ replies the extra resignedly, as they help themselves to another coffee.

The Face of the Audience

Guarding Tess is the American equivalent of the British heritage film, where tiny dramas of social impropriety nudge the narrative forward like a kindly but quietly insistent teacher softly pushing a reticient young actor onto stage. At 25 minutes into the film’s running time the most dramatic incident had been Nic’s ill-judged decapitation of a flower. I employ the word ‘decapitation’ to lend the moment the excitement worthy of it. You see, Nic takes a rose – a rose, that most beautiful of flowers, carrying with it the Heavenly scene of Romeo and Juliet and the musk of those historical houses of York and Lancaster – and audaciously removes its head – that most essential part of the rose – and has the audacity, the waggish audacity, to place it within his own lapel, in obscene defiance of the fact that the rose’s owner – former First Lady no less and furthermore his employer – did not (absolutely, unequivocably not) instruct him to do so. Oh how we laugh at this mad comedy of errors while silently assenting that the rose should have been left in its place. When later in the film Nic woke the ex-First Lady of the U. S. of A. while she indulged her God-given right to a snooze at the opera (but oh how funny of her; how perfectly old-lady-like) I was so appalled I vomited all over my eiderdown.


Guarding Tess continued at this pace to a degree that was almost aggressively boring, as though it were a maiden-aunt or bearded pedagogue chastising us for wanting to play our sexy violent computer games and not being content with our cup-and-ball instead.*

I work in insurance and in my spare time compose hundred-page excel spreadsheets of the words most commonly appearing on ceefax and yet my life is still more exciting that Guarding Tess. It doesn’t even have the doily-dress delights of a proper heritage film where you get to watch Helena-Bonham Carter standing next to furnishings – everyone wears grey, has grey skin and lives in a kind of fortified castle, where esteemed and respected British actors are forced to make sandwiches and provide unfunny buffoonish diversions.

Richard Griffiths, Yes, Richard Griffiths himself sits glumly to one side in the kitchen, the “hub” of the Guarding Tess action, trying not to look the camera in the eye while an under-appreciated chef cooks constant broth for no-one. While it might seem unfair to famous and lauded actor Richard Griffiths to mention that he was in the film Guarding Tess, I do so because people have got into the habit recently of pinning all bad film choices on Nicolas Cage’s lapel. Sure, Cage is in bad films. But you know who else is in bad films? Richard Griffiths. Tom Hanks is also in bad films. Tom ‘the ham’ Hanks was in a film called The Man with One Red Shoe (1985), rivaling any of Cage’s output for hokyness – and yet it’s Cage who must be martyred for the cinematic sins of all actors. I’m not saying Nicolas Cage is Jesus, that’s for other people to say

Cage does what he can with the wet sack of Sunday afternoons he’s given. For most of the film his acting is muffled, as if he’s in a library, waiting for the Queen to arrive – but sometimes it all gets too much and he just has to shout out a line with erratic ferocity. This culminates in a bizarre scene in which Cage pre-cogs his performance in Bad Lieutenant by 15 years, and shoots the toes off a chauffeur. ‘Where’s the first lady? Where is she?!’ Doug Chesnic demands, as the chauffeur lies in hospital, gun pressed to his little toe. Another Secret Special Agent looks on with faint disgust, as if Cage is a tolerated school friend, too enthusiastic about pulling the legs off a spider.

But for Doug Chesnic this is a victorious moment. Tess always made him leave his gun outside the door when he came knocking, but now the proud gun has been proved right all along. If Chesnic did not have the maverick sensibilities needed to torture a chauffeur as he lies in a hospital bed, Tess could not be victoriously rescued from the hillbilly’s hidey-hole where she’s been stowed away. And if Chesnic couldn’t roll up his shirtsleeves, grab a spade and start manfully digging the former first lady out of a hole, he would be doomed to a life of emasculated chair-breaking (and probably bicycle-wheeling too).

Thank God for the gun, as Cage proves once again that he’s no-one’s fancy man. Grab your clapping-hand hats everyone, it’s going to be all-right.

Such a thing as I could never imagine in my most lucid daydreams


* I gently remind the audience at this juncture that Adam was absent while I was reviewing The Boy in Blue.

*At this juncture I am obliged to note that Jay much prefers a cup-and-ball to sexy violent computer games.


Bringing Out the Dead (1999)

23 Nov

Raining on Nic's parade

Flannery O’Connor once wrote to her friend Betty Hester; “all my stories are about the action of grace on a character who is not very willing to support it, but most people think of these stories as hard, hopeless and brutal.” This might also serve as a description of those three collaborations between director Martin Scorsese and screenwriter Paul Schrader, of which 1999’s Bringing Out the Dead is the last. For Scorsese, a lapsed Catholic and Schrader, who was raised in the Calvinist Christian Reformed Church, grace isn’t some fuzzy-felt affair. God doesn’t wear mittens. Grace is violent and reaches people at their lowest ebb in the searing, unconditional present of their daily-lived lives. It cannot be achieved complacently. Cage, an Italian-American by birth like Scorsese, was raised a Catholic, but in interview refuses to be prescriptive with regards to his own religious feelings. One might conjecture a belief in the benevolent justice of Marvel Comics heroes, tempered by the restorative power of personal creativity, with some more abstract, holistic ideas of a cosmological order sincerely but speculatively entertained. What we can be more certain of Cage’s belief in is, I think, the need for good, romantic figures who act with integrity; fuelled by a personal vision sometimes knowable only by themselves.

In Bringing Out the Dead Cage plays Frank, a paramedic who cruises the streets for the sick and the dying looking for the sweet hit of salvation he gets from saving a life. There’s an inner sluice of humanitarian feeling in Frank, only those waters have got a little muddied; the sluice has got bent out of shape. The reason…? Frank is very, very tired. As much as Bringing Out the Dead is a story of inner-city grace, it’s also a paean to the incredible, curative powers of sleep told through the character study of a man who doesn’t get any. Either the make-up work in the film is top notch or else Cage slept with slices of onion in place of cucumber slices, because he’s got enough sagging under-eye flesh to fill an elephant’s graveyard. Throughout the film, Cage is bug-eyed and weary and through point-of-view shots and the film’s over-cranked cinematography, we share in the sense that Frank’s mind has, to quote The National, “come loose inside its shell”. Everything is too big; too close. Lights are too bright; movements too fast. With Frank we are cast into one of Scorsese’s odysseys of strangeness, like 1985’s After Hours and this year’s Shutter Island.

These are all films in which enjoyment derives less from the gratifying peaks and troughs of a story well told, but from the appreciation of moments that catch you off guard; lyrics in the soundtrack ironically matched to a scene’s action; tricksy displays of camera work. A character study, rather than a fully-fledged narrative, that charts three successively bleary night shifts in the life of Frank. In this way, Bringing Out the Dead feels like a road movie told from the front seat of a stalling, kicked-in ambulance from which we glance, a passenger, at the scenes of suffering through which we pass. Frank speculates in his troubled, brooding voice-over that his role as a paramedic is not so much to save lives as it is to bear witness; his mother always told him, he says to Patricia Arquette’s Mary, that he looked like a priest. The notion of the camera as a means of bearing witness is a notion engaged with by films more sober and less strung-out that this one, like Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest (1951) or Kurosawa’s Ikiru (1952), which present the torments of their protagonist quietly. By contrast, Scorsese wants us to be in the maelstrom. Oddly, the film Bringing Out the Dead most recalled for me, was Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998); a queer comparison when we think that Hunter S. Thompson’s drug-induced suffering is self-willed in a way that Frank’s is surely not.

Actually, this is where the film strikes a curious note, which give it a maturity that the more structurally gratifying Scorsese-Shrader collaboration Taxi Driver (1976) lacks; Mary tells Frank plainly, “No-one asked you to suffer; that was your idea.” The film takes a hard-line on the need for human charity, but there’s a suggestion that suffering can become indulgent, can get in the way of doing good. This then, is a film about the pain of deep, unremitting concern but not letting that pain sink you too far into a rut; of not letting your anger about injustice contaminate the river of good will and good work.

Three different partners accompany Frank on his night shifts. The first is Larry, played by John Goodman, displaying the typical goony belligerence that characterises his roles, as he follows Cage into hostels and hospitals like a meaty familiar. Frank’s partners on the second two nights, played by Ving Rhames and Tom Sizemore successively, display the two different ways of channelling an inner-river of moral manliness – this being a film about tough, on-the-streets charity performed by men, as is Shrader’s wont. Marcus, played by Rhames, has taken the path of the preacher; brimming over with love for the Lord and his belief in Salvation. Tom, played by Sizeman, beats down those he thinks are less deserving of his charity, warped by the injustice that, to his mind, dictates that a self-harmer receives help and medical attention, while a homicide victim dies. This path is eventually shown as destructive as the last shot we see of Tom is of him pounding his ambulance in emasculated fury; trying pathetically to destroy the very vehicle that helps him save lives. To quote again, this time from Kurt Vonnegut, “God damn, you’ve got to be kind.”

As ever with Cage it’s the eyes that show the kindness. Occasionally his face softens from a Loony Tunes death’s head into a smile or an expression of compassion and love. In these moments, Cage might remind us of Seth from City of Angels, but a Seth that’s been out on the streets for too long and has fallen away from idealism. Since Cage’s performance jolts along with the camera work, thrashes out to the music of the Clash, it’s a real sea change when he slows things down to become something like an everyman. Personally, I find this preferable to the all-out sapling-eyed dew-baby fawn-a-like naivete of an angel whose wings have yet to go to the dry-cleaners… but, of course, I can see the appeal. Some days, you just want to turn away from the suffering and watch something nice. Most of Bringing Out the Dead is “hard, hopeless and brutal”, its only humour straight from the gallows, but the shot that really stayed with me is the shot of Frank and Mary sitting together in the back of the much-abused ambulance, smiling to themselves and almost, but not quite, holding hands.

City of Angels (1998)

7 Nov

These aren't pears, but you get the idea.

I was worried about watching City of Angels. It’s based on one of my favourite films, Wim Wenders’ 1987 Wings of Desire and I was concerned that an American remake would make the original seem hokey in retrospect. However, despite similar openings that track the interior monologues of the isolated inhabitants of a city, the remake diverges from the original with its early emphasis on the romance between Nicolas Cage’s angel and Meg Ryan’s cycling urban surgeon, Maggie.

Cage plays the role of Seth – an angel who watches over those in need – with a kind of double glazed intensity. His movements are slow and his voice is stripped of his usual odd pauses and erratic cadences and becomes unusually monotonous. In Wenders’ film, Bruno Ganz plays the angel with detached, earnest worldliness, whereas Cage is doe-eyed, like Kevin Spacey (in K-Pax) playing Haley Joel Osment (in A.I.) He seems quite convincingly otherworldly, although at times the performance can feel sinister; perhaps the director’s previous work on the live-action Casper movie contributed to Seth’s characterisation as a slightly creepy naif. When Seth stood unseen by Maggie behind a refrigerator door, or chopped a cabbage with a steak knife the film felt as if it could quite convincingly be re-edited as an angelic slasher movie.

But Cage is always endearing, and Seth is an unusually feminine character. The angel’s naivety extends to sex, and when Meg Ryan asks him how ‘it’ feels, she seems more dominant and he more submissive. It was unusual to see in a Hollywood film, and unusual for the characters that Cage tends to play in mainstream films. Maggie’s unremarkable surgeon boyfriend proposes to her towards the end of the film, with a speech that must be one of the least romantic on film. In a locker room he looks cursorily into her eyes and says “We belong together. We’re the same species” as if he’d previously been married to his dog and it hadn’t worked out. The film teaches us that inter-species love always fails; Seth has to ‘fall’, literally from the top of a half-constructed skyscraper in order to secure a relationship with Maggie… although we might as well just say Meg Ryan, Maggie Rice’s initials are the same, indicating that we should see them as interchangeable.

The only possible Cageism in the film comes when a distraught Seth places pear after pear from a market stall into his basket, the pears reminding him of Maggie. The pear plucking is typical of Cage, being a highly-specified movement focused on an idiosyncratic object, performed with hyper-real stylisation. We might think of the Eva Mendes spoon fondling of Bad Lieutenant, the jelly bean martinis of Ghost Rider or the snake skin jacket in Wild at Heart. Yet, otherwise this is Cage at his most restrained, breaking out into ecstatic joy only when made human – the joy being in the tactile world of objects represented by the pears.

While the film lacks the soft-glazed beauty of Wenders’ original and some of its emotive motifs (pregnant bellies and ocean waves) seem a little over-determined, a plot twist near the end is kept admirably uncloying and everyone involved seems sincere about the project – which is really all you can ask for a Hollywood remake of a European art house film.

Wild at Heart (1990)

29 Oct

"Go grease lightning you're burning up the quarter mile..."

Wild at Heart is bold, brassy (sometimes literally, the soundtrack features a few blasts from some demonic trumpets) and about as subtle as Brian Blessed overdubbing an episode of Transformers, yet beneath the cock-crowing visuals, Nicolas Cage as Sailor Ripley is possessed of a tenderness that puts the heart, if you will, in this restless, tempestuous film.

Wild at Heart wears its pulp origins tattooed upon its chest. It follows some strange days and nights in the lives of honeymoon tearaways Sailor Ripley and Lula Fortune (Laura Dern) as they attempt to escape from the Bad Circumstances that attempt to drive them from their yellow brick road. Lula’s momma Marietta (Diane Ladd) has placed a hit on Sailor’s head, who once spurned her advances in a bathroom stall and might know too much about the death of Lula’s pappa. Sailor is blue-eyed with love for Lula and muscle-bound with violence for anyone who would stand in the way of that love. In Bad Lieutenant the teal & orange colouration of post-production turned Cage’s eyes to a jaded grey, but here Lynch lights Cage’s eyes so they are clear Texas sky blue. Whether lit by a bedside lamp in a roachy hotel room or by a light hidden in a tree stood in the middle of Texas shrub-land Cage shines… which might have much to do with the iridescent snake-skin jacket he wears throughout the movie that is a symbol of Sailor’s individuality and his “belief in personal freedom”.

This would seem like a fitting manifesto for Cage who, to evoke Fleetwood Mac, tends to ‘go his own way’. While we saw that under the auteurist Coens a fine performance was subsumed into the body of the film as a whole, here Cage stands tall through his unusual decision to perform Sailor in impersonation of Elvis. In interview Cage proclaimed; “In the book An Actor Prepares, by Stanislavski, it says the worst thing an actor can do is to copy another performer. I had always believed that, but then with Wild at Heart, I thought, maybe it’s time to try something else.” The Tennessee drawl, sweet/ sardonic smile and insouciant swagger are all clear signifiers for the King.

Also, putting myself at risk of swooning into a cataleptic state, Cage’s inner furnace of acting power seems to be fuelled by coal-sized lumps of libido! Gasp as Cage kick-boxes his way through a hair-metal routine! Scream as Cage recounts a lurid sexual experience with a kinky weapons enthusiast! Take a cold shower as Cage thrusts his serious face through steamy sex scene after steamy sexy scene!  Cage has recounted that as a child he was always shocked when he would go to the doctor’s and find he wasn’t some alien with blood the colour green. In Wild at Heart Cage’s green blood boils over and spits.

But what I love most about Cage’s performance as Sailor Ripley is that through his evident passion for Elvis and the source material, he transforms what could seem glib  and cursory in the script, to something downright romantic. Many critics have argued that the romance between Sailor and Lula in the film is intentionally corny and a parody of the earnest romances of 50s Hollywood cinema. What is pretty special about Lynch is his ability to make cynicism and sincerity compatible and it is Cage’s performance which allows for this fusion animated, as it is, by a brimful of desire.

Also, Cage and Dern are a useful point of anchorage and identification in the film, which is a rogue’s gallery of creeps and carnies. There is a lot of ‘casting at face value’ going on by Lynch here (see also Terry Gilliam) which has the advantage of creating a cohesive-feeling world of nightmarish deformity and the sure disadvantage of using funny looking faces as scene-dressing and little more. William “Willem” Dafoe is particularly repulsive as Bobby Peru, a warped and giggling sleazebag with teeth that look like extended stalks of gum braced with metal. Cage’s manly yet angelic face, even when sheathed in a nylon tight, fares comparatively well besides it.

I have a real fondness for Lynch, especially at his most grubby-fingered. While his stories may be slight, his sound work and shadows compensate through atmosphere. Wild at Heart is undoubtably a road movie with several pit-stops, but it also includes stretches of sublime film-making. I would hardly be the first to describe Lynch’s films as oneiric and there are times where the outlandishness of Wild at Heart seems too calculated to fully justify the description, yet there are other moments still where some grand intuition on Lynch’s part has clicked the elements into place and the film registers a shift of consciousness, in which the viewer feels transported to a stranger, queasier plane of seeing, a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity. It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, and it lies between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge. This is the dimension of imagination. It is an area which we call The Twilight Zone.

One sequence, firmly within this blue-and-purple-Bemuda-Triangle-nightmare-of-a-lost-child territory involves a car crash and its victim (Sherilyn Fenn) pleading desperately for Sailor and Lula to help her locate a lost comb that is bookended perfectly by mesmeric, cyclical guitar music that plays as if uninterrupted on the car’s radio before and after the accident, as if the tragedy was an interlude that took place in quite a different time and place to the one occupied by Sailor and Lula cruising along in their car.

Take it away, Cage:

(A sterling performance of Love Me Tender by Cage, while wearing a plasticine conk over his real nose – somehow it seems to assimilate with his face)