Tag Archives: The Something Man

The Family Man (2000)

26 Apr

The first of Nicolas Cage’s  The Something Man trilogy, this film has no Spongebobs of regret, or bee-arded ladies. It’s lacking in spectacle, but thankfully also lacking the nasty cynicism of The Weather Man and the ludicrous misogyny of The Wicker Man.

Instead, it has a sentimental Christmas storyline, adorable pie-faced children, and a comforting predictability that means it doesn’t matter if you fall asleep towards the end (I did).

As the film’s tagline amusingly puts it,

“A fast-lane investment broker, offered the opportunity to see how the other half lives, wakes up to find that his sports car and girlfriend have become a mini-van and wife”.

Something about the way this is phrased makes me think that the sports car turns into his wife, like some kind of Cinderella pumpkin deal, but sadly that’s not the case.  Way back in ’88, Cage’s character Jack Campbell went into investment banking instead of staying with his girlfriend (Téa Leoni) and now is an equipped, capable, connected alpha-man who sings arias to his suit and tie of a morning. When he gets landed in the life that could have been, he finds to his horror that alternative-him is a goofy and lovable bowling enthusiast who works in a car showroom and seems to share a circle of clueless but loyal dude friends with his namesake Jack Singer from Honeymoon in Vegas.

The whole switcheroo begins because Cage’s character tells a black man who is robbing a corner-shop at gun-point that he ‘has everything he needs in the world’. When Cage wakes up in his new life, and blunders around, confused and in tracksuit bottoms outside his former office, it is this man who takes him for a ride around the block, and explains that this experience is comeuppance for his pride:

‘But how…?’ you and Cage wonder simultaneously, as the man suggests that Jack is not the first to have this experience.

‘I’ll explain everything’ replies the man in the car with a reassuring smile, ‘Just get out and we’ll go for a walk and I’ll tell you what’s going on, how about that?’

‘Yes please, that would be nice’, reply the audience and Cage meekly, but no! – it was a trick – he drives off and neither Jack nor the viewer will ever know the mysterious man’s reasons for rehabilitating capitalist swine through the medium of alternative universes. Perhaps it would have been wiser to have given no explanation at all for the shenanigans (see Groundhog Day, 1993) rather than confusingly presenting it as a magical lesson about the values of family from your friendly neighbourhood mugger. If nothing else, it would have avoided getting the film represented on TV Tropes.

But anyhow, all of this is not what the film is about. The film is about family. But what are family? Family are the people who dance adorably in the shower, demand chocolate milkshakes and pee, laughingly, in your face while you’re trying to change their nappy.  They are your mothers, your sisters, your cousins, your children, your family pets, your buds, your bros.  The film posits that a life without a family is not a life worth living. Try as you might to pin little paper arms to the sides of Benjamin Franklin on a $100 bill, money cannot give you a hug. As such, this is probably not a film best watched while playing a single-player game of Monopoly in your Mayfair apartment, but a film to watch tucked up in bed with a loved one, as we did.

Dubious

The film is competent enough to elicit the fuzzy feelings, but not remarkable enough to prompt life-changing decisions. Despite any wistful feelings the film stirred in me, I’m still working in a call-center and I doubt that many businessmen threw off their suits and ties and made embarrassing phone-calls to old sweethearts after the credits rolled. Perhaps this is due to the numerous compromises the screenplay allows Campbell, undermining its integrity a notch.  Not only does Campbell get to keep the woman of his dreams, he also gets to keep his job as a  high-powered executive. Admittedly, the two adorable children of the alternate reality are disappeared into the ether once Campbell is returned to his own reality – prompting the question as to whether they go on living in some time and space unknown to us or are spirited away like a forgotten thought experiment. Makes you think!

It would be a shame though if the children were just dust in a sun beam as they’re a cute couple of grubs! Technically, they’re a triple of grubs, since youngest child Josh is played by twin brothers, Jake and Ryan Milkovich, two pudgy cherubs who surely caught their first break in a painting by Botticelli. Older sister Annie (Makenzie Vega) is also endearing and the interactions between her and Cage are remarkably unstilted… while Vega’s clearly a talented young actress, I am also reminded by interviews with Cage’s co-actors over the years where they speak of how accommodating he is on set and the lack of distance he places between himself and the less experienced actors. As Campbell’s initial wariness gives way to affection, Vega and Cage act off each other in a way which I found charming and convincing. I also liked that Annie thought that Campbell was an alien who had replaced her father. That’s the kind of thing I believed when I was little! “The chances of anything coming from Mars are a million to one they said… until they come!”

Cage plays the role appropriately low-key, a fact testified to by the fact that the only meme produced by the film is a mediocre animation involving Cage demanding cake, which has to date received a pitiful 2 million views. This is all to the good, mind, as the film hinges on relationships, not merely a central performance. Leoni is chipper and sexy when not harangued and though we don’t get to see much of her inner-life, she’s robust enough not to be just another manic pixie dream girl.

Critically the film has been compared to A Christmas Carol (2001 – dates differ but ’01 is Cage’s version) and It’s A Wonderful Life (1946) due to its festive didacticism through a what if? story-line.  However, it is neither as phantasmagorical, nor its narrative as tight as its two peers and one wonders whether the Christmas time setting was tacked on in order to deliberately elicit the comparison. Still, you’d have to be a real hardnose to meet this film head-on with cynicism. It communicates a real enthusiasm for family which is schmaltzy but earnest and when you’re watching such a film deep in the arms of a loved one you meet it on its own terms.

The Wicker Man (2006)

18 Dec

Featuring bees, women, bee-women, wobbly bicycle riding and a great big bear suit – the product of some surely disturbed minds –  it’s The Wicker Man!

Nicolas Cage plays Edward “Steady Eddie” Malus, a traffic cop who eats salad and reads self-help books (what, you want character development? He eats salad and reads self-help books!). He comes to the island of Summerisle in the Pacific Northwest when his ex-fiancee writes to tell him that her daughter, Rowan, is missing. Rowan is named after the actor who played the policeman in the 1973 original, which gives her the slightly unsubtle nature-worshiping name Rowan Woodward, pronounced Woodwood. Edward is also allergic to bees, and woe betide you if you dismiss that character quirk as insignificant. On Summerisle, people wear their hair in plaits, carry sacks around that drip blood, and have no phone reception. They also operate under a (steel yourself!) matriarchy, leaving poor emasculated men only fit to wheel bicycles around at their mistresses’ behest.

The horror!

Watching Robin Hardy’s 1973 The Wicker Man you are assaulted by lurid sensuality, like being handed a faded postcard of Waterhouse’s ‘Hylas and the Nymphs’ in the toilets of a London Underground station. By contrast, Neil LaBute’s 2006 remake of Hardy’s film is like a laminated Victoria Francés poster of a bodiced angel, its ripped corsetry and smeared make-up clumsily foregrounded signifiers for the a pre-Raphaelite sensuality which the artist blandly simulates. The original film pitches the uptight Protestantism of Police Sergeant Howie (Edward Woodward) against the pagan spiritualism of the inhabitants of Summersisle, ruled over by charismatic Lord Summersisle (Christopher Lee). Over the course of the film it is slowly revealed that the local bucolic scenes of naked maidens cavorting under light dappled trees are a desperate pantomime that mask a rotting away at the heart of Summersisle itself. However, the sun drenched cinematography captures these rituals with a polaroid warmth which, when accompanied with the melodies of lightly fluting folk songs, makes a life of pagan naturism seem beguilingly attractive, almost in spite of Sargeant Howie’s unseemly fate at the heart of the wicker man. It is a film about the allure of a very old belief system that runs below staid Christianity through which Jesus, not the clean-cut philanthropist of Sunday sermons, can be glimpsed, “a wild ragged figure who moves from tree to tree”, to quote Flannery O’Connor – who has become a fixture here at Cage Wisdom. As Lord Summersisle reminds Howie, Jesus was “himself the son of a virgin, impregnated – I believe – by a ghost”. The tangled, bramble-cut crags of Ayrshire and the other Scottish locales where the film was shot provide authenticity and help lend a curious wind-swept purity to the bawdy fertility rites and carnivalesque knees-ups that gives the film the atmosphere of wholesome tawdriness which is totally unique to it.

Hylas and the Nymphs

By contrast, LeBute’s remake feels synthetic, like a fake log cabin at a ski-resort. Instead of the ratty fur trimmed costumes of the original’s parade, the new islanders’ masks look cleanly vacuum formed and store bought. Post-production has given the cinematography a grimy sheen, as if we were watching the film through a newly polished, yet somehow still dirty window. Flash-back sequences (and this film contains a dreamt flash-back of a hallucinated vision) look especially like they’ve been ‘made on the cheap’ as we stumble drunkenly through much-repeated footage retrospectively filtered through the dull exposure of Malus’ tormented memories.

A Victoria Francés angel

While the original film may look wholesome, but be about unwholesome things, the remake’s digitized colour tinting makes the film stock look anaemic, as if drained of vitality. If the film contained naked pagans they would not seem fleshy and earthy, but neutered and metallic. Not that the film has any naked pagans, because while it may be queasily unwholesome to look at, there is no lust on display. LaBute characterises the female enclave of his Summerisle as a smug, sneeringly straight-laced bunch who never dance and sing and probably don’t even laugh at racist 70s sitcoms. Basically, they’re what The Daily Mail imagines Guardian readers to be like. They drink in clean beer-free gastropubs, live in mock Tudor cottages in sensible gender neutral clothes and feed their emasculated menfolk to swarms of ravenous bees. Problem is, Guardian readers are both less creepy and alluring than naked pagans and despite the fact that the film often takes dialogue and plot points from the original, this really changes the stakes. Instead of having a frowny righteous middle-aged man pushing his way through a bunch of flannel-shirted heathens, we how have an even-frownier righteous middle-aged man pushing his way through a bunch of clean-living Wholefoods customers. Nature is not shown thrown into excess; nature is cellophane wrapped and made of fibreglass.

Summerisle lives the Good Life

But this is satire, right? It’s hard to tell with LaBute, whose break-out hit In the Company of Men (1997) was condemned  as misogynous by about as many critics who celebrated it as an ironic exposé of the same. From his own words it is difficult to ascertain why he took the project on; Nic himself was on board long before him, since he had pledged to Johnny Ramone before he died that he would see it through. One could image the ludicrous Bacchanalian heights Cage must have envisioned taking the film to, when pitching the idea to Johnny, perhaps setting himself on fire in the wicker man itself or punching people while dressed in a bear costume… yes, there is that, but the Youtube montages belie the preceding nature of the film and of Cage’s role in it. For the majority of the running time Cage stands in front of people, solidly planted, making churlish, no-nonsense remarks about his hatred of bees and women and bee-women, since in the screenplay and through the hive based architecture they are often conflated. Summersisle’ economy is based around honey creating, LaBute says in the commentary, “a kind of loose colony effect using a Queen Bee at the centre… and then the females represented the worker bees and the males represented the drones.”

As becomes transparently obvious during the course of the film, the bees and the women are one and the same. Both have a queen, both employ subordinate males to do grunt work, both have a long proboscis that enables them to acquire nectar, the resemblance is uncanny. Bees are women, women are bees – there is literally no difference between the two creatures in Neil LaBute’s mind. He leaves the house in summer, the scent of wild flowers on the breeze and watches the women flying around, pollinating the lavender –  ah, to live in such a world as Neil LaBute’s.

As we know, Steady Eddie is allergic to bees. It is, therefore, not a great leap of imagination to say that he is allergic to women. However, while we see an early establishing shot of the epi-pen he uses in the case of bee-stings, he seems to have left his epi-fem behind, and must resort to the cruder tactic of punching women in the face before they sting him. It’s purely self-defence; Adam, for example, is slightly allergic to cinnamon, and many’s the time I’ve seen him sidling up the spice aisle and punching  little bags of cinnamon full in the face.

Performing masculinity through the bee-ard

The film’s memorable moments come densely packed in the last, climatic third, but here Nic often runs past the most crazy of spectacles, perhaps slowing a little so that the woman in question can register his look of disgust and then speeding up again. Off he runs! Past two mumps-cheeked old lady grotesques! On, past children in masks – he stops, swipes the masks off – runs on. He barely registers a woman with a body suit made of bees and a man bumpy with bee-sting boils, so concerned is he with running! Revealingly, the moments of the greatest madness and thus the most mundanity breaking are those introduced by Cage himself, but introduce a little chaos into the mis-en-scène rather than into how he plays the role, which is a shame. On the DVD disc’s commentary LaBute says that the bear costume was a Cage intervention and that he was very keen to wear it during through the entire final sequence when he is finally tortured by the islanders. More fool LaBute for not yielding to Nic’s wondrous whims, those intuitive ideas he creates, often on set. The bear suit is far too shortly lived and even avoids the flames.

We could have been treated to Nic dressed in a bear wailing and thrashing like a stuck Morrissey, on fire. The bee mask, the height of gothic absurdity in the film, was brought onto the set by Cage, who is as LaBute informs us, a big fan of Edgar Allen Poe. Though Poe never wrote about the primal terror of bees (‘that ineluctable bee, that singular bee, that still buzzes in my mind’s eye’) he definitely should have and though their CGI swarming leaves a lot to “bee” desired, it’s as terrific an idea as Cage has ever had. It’s also remarkably similar to the rat mask that Winston is made to wear in Room 101, in the climatic scene of the film adaptation of Orwell’s 1984. Although the ‘no, not the bees, not the beees!’ is unintentionally funny, perhaps it’s heading for Room 101 horror and getting lost along the way. It’s only at this moment that Cage breaks free from the tough cop persona which I feel restricts him in the film, but some fine hollering in a film’s last ten minutes cannot save the mediocrity of the previous hour and a half, however loud Cage yells.

The uncut British DVD release of the film comes with a commentary courtesy of LaBute, producer Norm Golightly and editor Joe Plotch, in which they try to back-classify the film as an intentionally campy comedy, in spite of Angelo Badalamenti’s broody, brow-furrowing score, which tells us in no uncertain terms that we are on Serious Ground. Knowing that the film has been received badly within circles of serious criticism and positively in ironic ones, puts the crew in a peculiar and often defensive position, which creates fascinatingly flinty exchanges. So uncertain of his own film is LaBute that in the first 30 seconds of the movie’s commentary he refers to The Wicker Man as “the film you’re about to see… unless you’re switching it off now” and talks about the commentary as ‘Mystery Science Theatre-ing’ his own movie. In fact, the commentary is one of the most interesting I’ve ever heard, due to its generous self-deprecating critiques and displays a humour that the film itself often lacks. One is given the impression that it was a project with eager beginnings, hampered by its adherence to the original, while the North American location and cast, forced strange and disjunctive changes, resulting in a lack of cohesive atmosphere and tone.

What disappoints me about The Wicker Man is that the States have their own fevered puritanical history, you need only look to the Salem witch trials, which could have informed a much creepier, more troubling film. Instead, the result is as curiously staid in its way as  Police Sergeant Howie in the original film. It spends so much time rallying against feminism and their bee breeding that it doesn’t take any fun from probing its own country’s myths and heritages of folk music and peculiar Christian off-shoots, like the Hussites. America has ghosts and strange practices of its own with a history that reaches back through a civil war and revolutions. Nic voices his own interest in myth and legend in many interviews; hopefully the upcoming Season of the Witch, will see him as a character immersed in the darkness of the past, rather than merely policing it.

The Weather Man (2005)

8 Dec

"Here's the Spritz Nipper!"

Containing very strong language, sex and sex references, all the way from 2005,  it’s The Weather Man!

Nicolas Cage plays Dave Spritz, a dissatisfied Chicago weatherman who gets on badly with his ex-wife, worries that he’s disappointing his father and struggles to relate to his children. Despite the packaging’s insistence that it’s a ‘bright and breezy’, ‘fresh and quirky’ comedy that will ‘brighten your day’, it’s actually a pretty morose film, and most of the comedy comes from people throwing fast food at Cage from car windows.

At one point, Spritz wonders why people take such a dislike to him that they throw food in his face. The scene cuts to a couple on a couch watching the weather and the man grumbling: ‘he’s an asshole, I don’t like his face. His asshole face.’  This was one of the only jokes in the film that made me laugh. Do my job for me, extra man, analyze Cage’s face all you like!

I don’t agree that he had an ‘asshole face’ though – I think this film just had a promotional tie in with assholes, and was contracted to mention them every few minutes. The tone is all over the place: it’s sweary and sentimental, bleak and goofy – and extremely charmless allover, in my opinion. Just thinking about the dubious tropes it throws around is making me feel punchy, so I’m going to go back to the calmer waters of Cage’s face.

As usual, it wraps itself around the role. In Bad Lieutenant we noticed a throbbing vein on his temple, in Adaptation his receding hairline, in Ghostrider his blue eyes. Here, the dimple in his chin seemed particularly prominent, perhaps emphasizing him as an American, an idea that is very important to the film (Michael Caine, playing his father, kept talking about Spritz’s ‘American Career’ as a weatherman.)

I mean, Bill Murray could probably be said to have an ‘asshole face’, but one of the many problems with this film is that Nicolas Cage is not Bill Murray. You might remember that in Groundhog Day, Bill Murray plays a grouchy grumbling asshole weatherman who eventually turns himself around during his spell in Sonny and Cher purgatory. Well, in The Weatherman, Cage plays Bill Murray’s character in Groundhog Day as Bill Murray’s character in Lost in Translation, The Life Aquatic and Broken Flowers.

It’s a hobby horse of mine, I admit, but I find Bill Murray and his sad face quite unbearable in these films, and I’m not best pleased to see Cage doing an impression of him. He lumbers around, speaking in a monotone and staring out of the windows of high rise buildings; it’s pretty uninspiring, although the shots of frozen Chicago that provide a backdrop to Spritz’s dour furrows are quite remarkable.

Basically, he’s a self-pitying character. To paraphrase B*Witched, he blames it on anyone but the weatherman.

As Crumpled As Cage Gets

This is a film with some truly odd motifs. Archery, Fast Food Throwing,  Spongebob Squarepants and Cameltoe (the less said about that the better) are all reoccurring plot points. For the weatherman, nothing is too bizarre to lead to a transcendental moment. The strangest example of this is when Spritz lays slumped in a chair as a parade passes by in the street below. As sad violins strike up, an enormous Spongebob balloon drifts past the window, as if taunting him with its care-free spongy face.

Is this a joke? It didn’t seem like a joke, but then the jokes in the film didn’t feel like jokes either.

Sometimes, the film began to sound like a chose your own adventure book. In a quasi peep-show way, we can hear some of Spritz’s thoughts in voice-over, mostly when he’s staring mournfully out of windows, but at one point leading to a bizarre digression about tartare sauce: ‘If I had remembered the tartare sauce, would things have been different?’ Spritz speculates about his marriage, although unfortunately we don’t get to turn to page 85 to find out.

In the end, Spritz takes the money-spinning weather job at ‘Hello America’, and in his semi-triumphant closing monologue makes peace with his own American career. As he strides triumphantly down the street, the spongebob balloon behind him (I swear!), he thinks: “All of the people I could be, they got fewer and fewer until finally they got reduced to only one — and that’s who I am. The weather man.”

So there we are. He’s not sliding down the doom slide for ever and ever, but he hasn’t escaped from the carnival of horrors either. He’s just a weatherman.

Take it away, B*Witched.