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The Wicker Man (2006)

The Wicker Man

To continue my jaunt through the cinematic realm of Nicolas Cage, today I am going to look at the infamous 2006 remake of The Wicker Man.

The plot of The Wicker Man is summarized on IMDb as follows:

A sheriff investigating the disappearance of a young girl from a small island discovers there’s a larger mystery to solve among the island’s secretive, neo-pagan community.

The Wicker Man is based on an acclaimed 1973 film of the same name starring Christopher Lee. That film was in turn a loose adaptation of the 1967 novel Ritual by David Pinner, though it was not initially formally credited as such. The 1973 film is widely regarded as a horror classic, and stands in sharp contrast to its 2006 remake.

The 2006 version of The Wicker Man was both written and directed by Neil LaBute, who has directed movies like Lakeview Terrace, Nurse Betty, the remake of Death At A Funeral, Possession, and a number of episodes of Hell On Wheels.

The cast of The Wicker Man includes Nicolas Cage (Con Air, Ghost Rider, Face/Off, The Rock, Drive Angry, Leaving Las Vegas, Stolen, National Treasure, Adaptation., Vampire’s Kiss, Snake Eyes), Ellen Burstyn (Requiem For A Dream, The Fountain, Interstellar, The Exorcist, The Last Picture Show), Kate Beahan (The Crocodile Hunter: Collision Course, Flightplan), Frances Conroy (Scent of a Woman, The Crucible, Six Feet Under), and Molly Parker (House of Cards, Deadwood, Hollywoodland).

The cinematographer for The Wicker Man was Paul Sarossy, whose other shooting credits include Charlie Bartlett, The Sweet Hereafter, Chloe, and notable television series like The Borgias and Copper.

The music for the film was composed by Angelo Badalamenti, who is notably a frequent collaborator with David Lynch, scoring such works as Twin Peaks, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, Blue Velvet, Wild at Heart, Lost Highway, and Mulholland Drive. On top of his Lynch credits, Badalamenti provided music for movies like Auto Focus, Christmas Vacation, Cabin Fever, Secretary, The Beach, and A Nightmare On Elm Street 3.

Both Robin Hardy, director of the 1973 The Wicker Man, and Christopher Lee, the film’s star, denounced the poor quality of the film’s remake. In 2011, Robin Hardy directed a sequel to his original film, called The Wicker Tree, which met with a reception almost as bad as the remake he denounced.

The original cut of The Wicker Man got an R-rating from the MPAA. Neil LaBute decided to make some minor changes to get a PG-13 for the theatrical release, in hopes that it would reach a wider audience. Interestingly, when the movie eventually released on DVD as an unrated version, not all of the footage was put back in: roughly four minutes from the original cut didn’t get re-inserted.

Nicolas Cage has claimed that the movie was intentionally made as an absurdist comedy, based on both his and LaBute’s vision. Some critics have agreed that it is a sort of black comedy, though very few who regard it as such think that the comedic elements were done well.

One of the key changes to the screenplay for this remake of The Wicker Man was the addition of the gender dynamic. The island is Summersisle is portrayed as a strict matriarchal system, where men are essentially used solely for breeding and labor.

Also, in the original iteration of The Wicker Man, the island is called “Summerisle”. Apparently, the change of the name to “Summersisle” for the remake was done because it was believed that Americans would have an easier time pronouncing it.

The Wicker Man was made on a production budget of $40 million, on which it took in a lifetime theatrical gross of just under $39 million. The reception to the film, however, was damning. Currently, it holds an IMDb user rating of 3.7/10, and has Rotten Tomatoes scores of 15% from critics and 17% from audiences. It ultimately wound up with a number of Golden Raspberry Award nominations, including for Worst Picture and Worst Actor, but didn’t wind up winning any.

In 2016, Brian Collins of Birth.Movies.Death. wrote an elaborate defense of The Wicker Man, which makes some interesting points:

[The Wicker Man is] unfairly maligned and curiously lambasted for its remake status when the original has its own share of offbeat choices… this was one of the more inspired [remake] choices for a major studio to throw a lot of money at…

the original Wicker Man was a realtively (sic) obscure British film that barely saw release in the US…Warner Bros. wasn’t giving Neil LaBute and Nicolas Cage 40 million dollars to remake a horror movie because they knew fans would show up – they saw potential in this strange tale being retold by these unique talents, regardless of the fact that it had been done before.

Is it a masterpiece? Heavens no.  But I wouldn’t offer the original that high of a compliment, either…I don’t think it’s fair to dismiss the remake outright simply because it’s a big budget movie that played on 2,000 screens instead of this weird little British movie you saw on TV on a late night broadcast.

Collins hits on something in this piece that I noticed a lot when reading through contemporaneous reviews of the film. Over and over again, reviews harped on the movie being an “unnecessary” remake, as if the original was an untouchable fixture that couldn’t be improved. While I understand that the oversaturation of remakes is frustrating, remakes are not inherently bad: sometimes, they bring fresh, new visions to stories. On top of that, I would argue that a remake of The Wicker Man was necessary: it has brought the original movie back into the public consciousness in a big way, and raised it out of obscurity.

All of that said, a bias against remakes combined with rose-tinted nostalgia glasses don’t totally account for the negative reaction to The Wicker Man. Make no mistake, this is a bad movie, and for a litany of reasons.

As mentioned previously, Nicolas Cage has claimed that the vision for the film was always comedic, though absurdist. If that’s the case, something went wrong, and the humor doesn’t come across. People don’t laugh at this because it is inherently comedic, but because it is nonsensical, and punctuated by Cage’s outlandish performance. One critical response to the film (by MaryAnn Johansen of Flick Filosopher) put my feelings on this issue well:

I’d look more kindly on Neil LaBute’s profoundly silly movie… if I thought he meant any of it in jest, if any of it were winking at us even a little.

As much as Cage may claim that the production had comedic intentions from the outset, there are just no signs of those intentions on screen. The tone, the music, the supporting performances, the cinematography: pretty much every element of the film (outside of Cage) is played absolutely straight. While that would certainly be absurd if done with intention, Occam’s razor dictates that it is far more likely that Cage was off the rails on his own tangent with his quasi-comedic performance.

For those same reasons, it is impossible for me to write off the transparently misogynistic themes and portrays in The Wicker Man as satiric or comedic. The thesis of this film is essentially that a matriarchal society is inherently oppressive, and devoid of critical thought. You can almost read LaBute’s thoughts: “Of course a society led women is going to be irrational, right?” It is hard not to imagine Neil LaBute filming sequences of Nic Cage punching women without experiencing an element of catharsis, given the amount of disdain laced through this screenplay. The fact that LaBute alone made the decision to alter the island society from the original film to be a matriarchy is more than a little telling as to his feelings towards women and feminism, and the look isn’t good.

As far as positives go, I have to say that The Wicker Man does look good: if you weren’t paying attention, you might mistake it for an artfully crafted film. Likewise, I like the setting of Summersisle: there is a sense of tension and foreboding to it, which contrasts interestingly with the bright, natural images that make it up. In that way, it isn’t unlike the bees that inhabit it: they are aesthetically pleasing, but dangerous.

While it may be true that critics were harsher to this movie based on its status as a remake, there are more than a handful of problems with it. It bows to countless genre cliches, promotes a misogynistic narrative, and has a bafflingly unfocused tone, and that’s without even touching on the perplexing, erratic performance from Nicolas Cage. It ultimately deserves the derision and ridicule that has been levied at it over the years, despite a few redeeming elements.

Much like Death Bed: The Bed That Eats, The Wicker Man falls in the rare category of bad movies that fancy themselves as art pieces, which carries a uniquely off-kilter tone. It is the sort of movie that you can truly marvel at, and get lost wrapping your brain around just how ill-conceived it was.

As far as a recommendation goes, I think this film’s reputation precedes it. If you think you might enjoy watching this movie, you probably will. Nicolas Cage fanatics are sure to enjoy his zany antics, to say the least, and absolutely have to give it a watch.

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Snake Eyes

Snake Eyes

Today, I’m going to delve into yet another Nicolas Cage feature: Brian De Palma’s 1998 casino thriller, Snake Eyes.

The plot of Snake Eyes is summarized on IMDb as follows:

A shady police detective finds himself in the middle of a murder conspiracy at an important boxing match in an Atlantic City casino.

Snake Eyes was directed and produced by Brian De Palma, an acclaimed auteur who has been behind films like Scarface, Mission: Impossible, The Untouchables, Carlito’s Way, Mission To Mars, Blow Out, Dressed To Kill, Carrie, and Body Double, among others.

The screenwriter for Snake Eyes was David Koepp, who penned flicks like Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Panic Room, Secret Window, Spider-Man, The Shadow, Jurassic Park, I Come In Peace, Death Becomes Her, Carlito’s Way, and Mission: Impossible.

The primary cast of the film includes Nicolas Cage (Con Air, Face/Off, Vampire’s Kiss, Leaving Las Vegas, Adaptation., The Wicker Man, Ghost Rider, The Cotton Club), Gary Sinise (Apollo 13, The Green Mile, Forrest Gump, Mission To Mars, The Stand), John Heard (Home Alone, CHUD, Cat People, After Hours, The Pelican Brief), Carla Gugino (Watchmen, Sin City, Night At The Museum, Sucker Punch, American Gangster), Kevin Dunn (Veep, Warrior, Small Soldiers, Godzilla), Michael Rispoli (Kick-Ass, Death To Smoochy, Rounders, Volcano), Luis Guzman (Waiting…, The Adventures of Pluto Nash, Oz, The Substitute, Boogie Nights), and Mike Starr (Ed Wood, Goodfellas, Dumb and Dumber, Black Dynamite).

The cinematographer for Snake Eyes was Stephen H. Burum, whose other shooting credits include Hoffa, Mystery Men, The Shadow, Rumble Fish, The Outsiders, and The Entity, as well as a number of other Brian De Palma movies, including Mission To Mars, Carlito’s Way, Raising Cane, and The Untouchables.

The editor on the film was Bill Pankow, who is known for cutting Drumline, Money Train, Double Team, American Ultra, Feel The Noise, Max, Carlito’s Way, The Bonfire of the Vanities, Body Double, and The Untouchables.

The musical score for Snake Eyes was composed by Ryuichi Sakamoto, who also provided music for the movies Femme Fatale, The Adventures of Milo & Otis, Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, and The Last Emperor.

Snake Eyes is perhaps most well known for its striking opening sequence, which is filmed and edited to appear as though it is all one continuous, 20-minute shot. While the shots are very long, the sequence has a 8 well hidden cuts, with the longest unbroken stretch coming in at roughly 12 minutes.

The original ending for the movie has Atlantic City completely destroyed by a hurricane, and the casino dramatically destroyed by the initial storm surge. Though the major destruction sequences were cut, references to the storm are peppered throughout the screenplay.

Both Will Smith and Al Pacino were offered Sinise’s antagonist role in the film. Pacino outright turned it down, while Will Smith required a huge paycheck to take on the part, which was too high for the production to take on.

The reported production budget for Snake Eyes was $73 million, though Brian De Palma has claimed that it actually came in under budget, at $68 million. In its lifetime theatrical run, the movie managed to take in just under $104 million, easily making back its budget.

The reception to Snake Eyes from critics and audiences wasn’t nearly as good. Currently, the movie holds an IMDb user rating of 5.9/10, along with Rotten Tomatoes scores of 40% from critics and 35% from audiences. Among the film’s harshest critics was Roger Ebert, who, despite adoring the opening sequence, said that “it’s the worst kind of bad film: the kind that gets you all worked up and then lets you down, instead of just being lousy from the first shot.”

In the wake of the 2016 documentary De Palma, which delves into the filmography and life of the acclaimed director, Birth.Movies.Death. writer Dominic Griffin decided to take another look at the popularly derided Snake Eyes:

Snake Eyes is a thrilling look at a world too far gone for salvation, and unless you’re a sincere Femme Fatale apologist, the last great film Brian De Palma made.

It is impossible to talk about Snake Eyes, positively or negatively, without addressing its opening sequence. While its style has been nearly universally praised, there have been some people who have complained of its gimmickry. Personally, I think the faux-seamless sequence works excellently to portray the event, particularly given how many times it is brought back up throughout the movie. There is a distinct sense that you, as the audience, should be paying attention to the details of the event: you are seeing all of the minutiae for a reason, or else it wouldn’t be shown. While there are certainly some issues with the film, the opening certainly isn’t one of them. If anything, it has cemented it as a footnote in film history.

Nicolas Cage is, to put it mildly, a divisive figure in the world of Hollywood acting. Plenty will claim that he is a one-note rodeo clown devoid of genuine ability, beyond having exaggerated facial features and a distinctive scream. Personally, I am a bit of a Cage apologist: when he is in his element and sticking to what he does well, he can bring energy to a movie better than just about anyone else. With Snake Eyes, I think he is perfectly cast: everything about him screams sleazeball. His naturally erratic behavior, the way he sardonically delivers dialogue, and his shifty physical demeanor all fit the character excellently, to the point that I have trouble picturing anyone else in the role. The ridiculous suit he is put in for most of the movie would look downright comedic on anyone else, but seems to fit his personality like a second skin.

Though many critics adamantly disagree with this, I personally like that the big “reveal” is done early in the movie, primarily because it feels genuinely unexpected and in sharp contrast to genre expectations. Likewise, I think that the revelation to the audience (and not to the protagonist) adds a level of tension to the two characters’ interactions that wouldn’t be there otherwise, which makes for compelling viewing. In responding to criticism of the reveal decision, De Palma has said that “the problem is that it isn’t about who did it. It’s a mystery about a relationship, two people, and how finding that out affects their relationship.” This all reminded me of Alfred Hitchcock’s famous description of the difference between “shock” and “suspense,” which you can see here:

If the character reveal in Snake Eyes had been saved for the climax, it would have only served for traditional shock value: the bomb suddenly going off under the table. However, De Palma chose to reveal to the audience that the bomb was present. The lead character is none the wiser, but now the audience knows the truth and the stakes involved, and there is real suspense at play.

While there are quite a few things that I like about Snake Eyes, it has some pretty significant issues that hinder it from being a really great film. First and foremost among those issues is the story’s pacing, which loses steam rapidly as the third act gets going. The more the movie leans towards being a traditional action flick, the less unique and interesting it is, and the entire conclusion feels more like a Con Air set piece than the conclusion to an innovative thriller. It just doesn’t do the movie justice, if you ask me.

On the subject of the ending, there are a number of critics who seem to believe that the originally planned ending, which sees the casino and Atlantic City totally destroyed by a hurricane, might have saved the film. Personally, I just don’t see it. I think that the originally planned ending would have been hokey and way too on-the-nose with its messaging, and might have hurt the movie even more than the half-assed action film conclusion that we currently have.

Overall, I think it is a fair assessment to say that Snake Eyes is a step above the typical Hollywood fare in terms of style and entertainment, thanks in large part to De Palma’s ambitious opening and Cage’s performance. However, the pacing issues definitely keep it a step below being a classic. That said, I can certainly understand why so many critics were disappointed with it: De Palma is capable of a whole lot better than this, and there are some serious flashes of brilliance here. Unfortunately, those peaks make the valleys seem all the deeper.

As far as a recommendation goes, I highly advocate watching the opening sequence for sure. While Birdman and Rope are more popular examples of long takes with hidden cuts, I think the Snake Eyes opening adds more to the movie as a whole than the long takes in those flicks: it has more thematic purpose here than just being a gimmick, or providing a third person omniscient POV. Apart from that, die hard Nic Cage and De Palma fans should definitely watch the whole movie. While it isn’t great by any means, I think that it is worth the time for the highlights.

Con Air

Con Air

Today, I’m going to take a look at the notorious Nicolas Cage action flick, Con Air.

The plot of Con Air is summarized on IMDb as follows:

Newly paroled ex-con and former U.S. Ranger Cameron Poe finds himself trapped in a prisoner transport plane when the passengers seize control.

The screenplay for Con Air is credited to Scott Rosenberg, whose other credits include Kangaroo Jack, High Fidelity, Disturbing Behavior, and Gone In Sixty Seconds, among others.

The director for the film was rookie helmer Simon West, who has gone on to direct movies like Stolen, When A Stranger Calls, The Mechanic, The Expendables 2, and Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. However, perhaps his best known credit is directing the infamous 1987 music video for Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Give You Up.”

The huge cast of character actors that makes up Con Air includes the likes of Nicolas Cage (Vampire’s Kiss, The Wicker Man, Left Behind, Leaving Las Vegas, Ghost Rider, Snake Eyes, Bringing Out The Dead, Adaptation.), John Cusack (Grosse Pointe BlankHigh Fidelity, 1408, The Raven, Being John Malkovich, 2012, War, Inc.), John Malkovich (Rounders, Eragon, Burn After Reading), Ving Rhaimes (Pulp Fiction, Mission: Impossible, Mission: Impossible II, Mission: Impossible III), Steve Buscemi (Boardwalk Empire, Reservoir Dogs, Fargo, The Big Lebowski, Armageddon), Colm Meaney (Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Star Trek: The Next Generation, Hell On Wheels), Danny Trejo (Machete, Machete Kills, Anaconda, From Dusk Till Dawn, Desperado), and Dave Chappelle (Half-Baked, Chappelle’s Show).

The cinematographer for Con Air was David Tattersall, who also shot such films as The Green Mile, Speed Racer, Next, Die Another Day, Theodore Rex, Soldier, and The Majestic, among others.

Con Air ultimately had three credited editors: Glen Scantlebury (Stolen, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Twixt, Armageddon), Steve Mirkovich (Hardcore Henry, 16 Blocks, Broken Arrow, Big Trouble In Little China, Prince of Darkness, Cool World, The Astronaut’s Wife), and Chris Lebenzon (Eragon, Big Fish, Enemy of the State, Mars Attacks, Ed Wood, Hudson Hawk, Wolfen, Top Gun, Days of Thunder).

The musical score for Con Air is credited to both Mark Mancina (Moana, Shooter, Training Day, Twister, Speed, Speed 2: Cruise Control) and Trevor Rabin (12 Rounds, Snakes On A Plane, Torque, National Treasure, Kangaroo Jack, Deep Blue Sea). Apparently, due to his commitment to Speed 2: Cruise Control, Mancina didn’t have time to complete his work on Con Air, and Rabin filled in to complete the project.

Con Air was produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, one of the most prolific and popular film and television producers of the past few decades. His television shows include CSI, CSI: Miami, Cold Case, CSI: NY, and The Amazing Race, and just a handful of his film credits are The Rock, National Treasure, Armageddon, Pirates of the Caribbean. Top Gun, Bad Boys, and Days of Thunder.

In a 2007 interview with The Guardian, John Cusack justified his decision to take part in Con Air, despite not actually liking the movie:

I use those kinds of films to get leverage…you wouldn’t think Con Air had anything to do with Max, but in my career it does. It’s doing Con Air, or doing romantic comedies, that makes Max possible. The bad stuff you just try to make as good as you can.

In an appearance on Inside The Actor’s Studio, comedian Dave Chappelle claimed that he improvised nearly all of the dialogue for his minor part in Con Air.

In the credits, Con Air is dedicated to Phil Swartz. Swartz was an effects worker for the production who was killed in an on-set accident, in which a plane fell off of its rigging.

The song “How Do I Live,” which is featured prominently in Con Air, had the rare claim of being nominated for both Best Original Song at the Academy Awards and Worst Original Song at the Razzie Awards. However, it wound up winning neither distinction.

Con Air was made on a production budget of $75 million, on which it took in a lifetime theatrical gross of just over $224 million, making it significantly profitable. Critically, though, it was a bit of a mixed bag: it currently holds Rotten Tomatoes scores of 54% from critics and 75% from audiences, alongside an IMDb user score of 6.8.

One of Con Air‘s prominent advocates was Roger Ebert, who gave the film 3/4 stars in his review for the Chicago Sun-Times:

The movie is essentially a series of quick setups, brisk dialogue and elaborate action sequences…it moves smoothly and with visual style and verbal wit.

In this case, I’m not sure if I completely agree with Ebert’s opinion, particularly on the point of the “quick setups” and action sequences. I think that Con Air is one of the key action movies that is most guilty of action over-saturation. Essentially, there are so many set ups, explosions, and grandiose moments, that ultimately each of their impacts is diluted. If a movie is nothing but explosions and gunfire, then those moments will be less notable that a single dramatic explosion in a different film. At the same time, it can be said that the constant flashes can keep an audiences attention. However, I tend to think of Con Air as more like a strobe light: after a few minutes, the effect has worn off, and the moments that should be thrilling just feel normalized and repetitive.

As far as positives go, it is hard to get better than the rogue’s gallery of character actors that populate the eponymous plane. Led by John Malkovich, the whole cast of villains is eccentric, colorful, volatile, and beyond over-the-top. Between the lot of them, there is more scenery-chewing than we might ever see on screen again. On the flip side, however, is Nicolas Cage: perhaps the king of the cinematic freak-out. Unfortunately, however, his character here is polite to the point of near stoicism, and even when unleashed, never quite goes wide-eyed in Cage-y fury. If anything, he is the closest thing to a stable presence in the film, which doesn’t suit him in the slightest. Luckily, he does use an absolutely outrageous interpretation of an Alabama accent, which has cemented this as one of his worst performances regardless.

Thanks to its frequent appearances on cable, I assume that most people have caught Con Air before, or know of its reputation. I don’t have to mention that this is a big, silly action movie with the depth of a kiddie pool. I will say that it is anything but tasteful, and hasn’t aged terribly well in a multitude of ways. Most surprisingly, though, is that I found it to be not quite as exciting as I remembered on this particular re-watch. It is still a pretty fun ride as far as blockbuster fare goes, particularly in today’s market. However, I think this might be the rare movie that I think is better to experience in clips and highlights, or left relegated to fond memories.

Ghost Rider

Ghost Rider

Today, I’m going to dive into the 2007 Nicolas Cage superhero movie, Ghost Rider.

The plot of Ghost Rider is summarized on IMDb as follows:

Stunt motorcyclist Johnny Blaze gives up his soul to become a hellblazing vigilante, to fight against power hungry Blackheart, the son of the devil himself.

The modern incarnation of Ghost Rider first appeared in Marvel Spotlight #5 in August of 1972, created by Mike Ploog, Gary Friedrich, and Roy Thomas. The following year, the character received a standalone title, and has been a staple of the Marvel universe ever since.

Ghost Rider was written and directed by Mark Steven Johnson, who both wrote and directed the even less well-regarded Marvel film, Daredevil. He additionally wrote the screenplays for both of the comedies Grumpy Old Men and Grumpier Old Men.

The cast for Ghost Rider includes Nicolas Cage (Con Air, Face/Off, Vampire’s Kiss, The Wicker Man, Left Behind, Snake Eyes, Bringing Out The Dead, Leaving Las Vegas, Adaptation.), Peter Fonda (Easy Rider, The Trip, Boondock Saints II, Wild Hogs), Sam Elliott (Road House, Hulk, Tombstone, The Big Lebowski), Eva Mendes (The Spirit, The Other Guys, 2 Fast 2 Furious), Wes Bentley (Interstellar, Jonah Hex, American Beauty), and Donal Logue (Blade, Zodiac, Terriers, The Patriot).

The cinematographer for the movie was Russell Boyd, whose list of shooting credits includes Liar Liar, White Men Can’t Jump, Master and Commander: The Far Side Of The World, Crocodile Dundee 2, and Doctor Dolittle.

The editor on Ghost Rider was Richard Francis-Bruce, who also cut such films as The Green Mile, The Rock, Se7en, Sliver, The Shawshank Redemption, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, and Air Force One.

The musical score for the film was provided by Christopher Young, whose other credits include The Core, Spider-Man 3, Swordfish, Drag Me To Hell, Rounders, Species, Copycat, and A Nightmare On Elm Street 2.

The financial success of Ghost Rider led to a sequel in 2011: Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, which once again starred Nicolas Cage in the lead role. However, in May of 2013, the film rights to the character reverted back to Marvel Studios, which effectively ended the franchise as it existed. There are no current plans for Marvel to bring the character back to the big screen, though an iteration has appeared on the television show Agents of SHIELD.

Nicolas Cage is apparently a huge fan of the Ghost Rider character, and actively lobbied for the part when he heard that it was casting. He even had to cover up a prominent Ghost Rider tattoo on his back in order to play the character.

Interestingly, Ghost Rider was the first time Cage played a comic book character, despite being an outspoken fan and collector of comic books (his stage name of Cage is taken from Marvel character Luke Cage). Famously, he almost played Superman in an ill-fated Tim Burton attempt to bring the character to the screen, which was recently chronicled in The Death of Superman Lives.

Sam Eliott’s character in the film, The Caretaker, is based on the original incarnation of Ghost Rider, which is now referred to as The Phantom Rider. This character was more of a western hero: he distinctively rode a white horse, and wore a glowing, phosphorescent mask and uniform.

The pre-production for Ghost Rider surprisingly dates back to the mid-1990s. However, numerous delays and personnel changes kept the film from being completed for roughly a decade. An early screenplay treatment for the flick was apparently cooked up by David S. Goyer, who is known for films like The Dark Knight, Man of Steel, and Blade, and wound up getting credited for writing the film’s 2011 sequel. In front of the camera, Eric Bana and Johnny Depp both nearly wound up filling the role of Ghost Rider over the years, and Jon Voight was attached at one point in a supporting role.

Nicolas Cage received a Golden Raspberry Award nomination for Worst Actor for his role in Ghost Rider, which he ultimately lost out on to Eddie Murphy’s performance in Norbit.

In a strange move, part of the promotion of the film involved the character of Ghost Rider appearing in a Jackson Hewitt commercial, in which a representative helps him fill out his taxes.

The newfound attention brought to the character by the film’s production led to a significant dispute over the ownership of the character. One of the original creators, Gary Friedrich, claimed that the rights to the character reverted to him in 2001, which led to a lawsuit and a long-running legal battle with Marvel and the studios involved in the film, which didn’t formally resolve until September of 2013.

Ghost Rider was made on a production budget of $110 million, on which it took in a lifetime theatrical gross of roughly $228.7 million between domestic and international markets. While this made it a financial success, it didn’t do nearly as well critically. Currently, it holds an IMDb user rating of 5.2/10, along with Rotten Tomatoes scores of 26% from critics and 48% from audiences.

There is no way to talk about Ghost Rider without first addressing the national treasure that is Nicolas Cage. It is hard to deny that Cage is consistently a barrel of fun with his over-the-top performances, but he took a lot of criticism for this role in particular. Not only did he take a lot of flak for being too old for the character, but much was made of a scene where he appears to have CGI abdominal muscles. While that sequence is definitely a bit suspicious, my biggest issue with Cage in this movie is that he isn’t quite unchained enough for what I wanted. Outside of his initial transformation, Cage is really subdued in his performance for a man with his head on fire. He is still erratic and fun to watch, but not quite to the degree that I would have hoped for.

Even if you believe that the casting of Nicolas Cage was a bit off-base, it is hard to argue that the casting of Sam Elliott as his predecessor wasn’t pitch perfect.  For the role of a lone-retired vengeful ghost cowboy, Sam Elliott couldn’t have been a more apt choice to play the part. In fact, one of the biggest weaknesses of the film is how little screen time his character gets. In most films like this, his role would have been as a trainer and guide for the protagonist. Instead, he is more of an informant than anything else, and doesn’t do much direct teaching. It is unfortunate, because it would have been cool to watch their relationship develop in spite of their clashing personalities, but that was not to be.

Perhaps the biggest criticism widely leveled at Ghost Rider is its extensive use of CGI, which was less that stellar at the time, and has aged very poorly. Unfortunately, I think the nature of the characters that the story was dealing with didn’t allow practical effects to be much of an option. However, the CGI didn’t have to be quite so ubiquitous: the fact that it is seemingly present in every scene makes the movie as a whole look cheaper and more artificial. CGI is best used as a background tool, but it has a more prominent place in this movie than most of the performers.

One of my personal gripes about this film is its unimaginative and paint-by-numbers screenplay. Nearly everything that happens is predictable, in a way that is even more flagrant than your average blockbuster screenplay. Not only that, but some of the dialogue borders on sounding like genre self-parody, like the mugger saying “give me your damn purse, lady!”.

Overall, Ghost Rider is a fun enough little blockbuster that it doesn’t feel like a waste of time, but it is certainly not good by any means. The character design and his bike are both fun to see on screen, but the effects spoil a lot of the coolness factor there. I still think it is worth catching for Cage and Elliott, but the film as a whole isn’t much to write home about.

As far as a recommendation goes, I think Ghost Rider is worth sitting through if you see it pop up on cable, or you just need some background noise to occupy your time. Apart from that, this isn’t something that should specifically seek out, unless you are a die-hard Nic Cage completionist.

Worst of 2016: Army of One

Army of One

armyofone2

Next up in my “Worst of 2016” month is a strange, quasi-true story from director Larry Charles and acting demi-god Nicolas Cage: Army of One.

The plot of Army of One is succinctly summarized on IMDb as follows:

An American civilian sets out on his own to find Osama Bin Laden.

The screenplay for the movie was written by Rajiv Joseph and Scott Rothman, whose credits include Draft Day and a handful of episodes of Nurse Jackie. However, the story behind it is loosely based on the strange exploits of an eccentric and patriotic American named Gary Faulkner, who set upon a personal quest, supposedly ordered by God, to track down and capture Osama Bin Laden.

The director for the film was Larry Charles, who is possibly best known for his numerous collaborations with Sacha Baron Cohen (The Dictator, Borat, and Bruno), as well as for the documentary Religulous and the hit television show Curb Your Enthusiasm.

The cast of Army of One includes Nicolas Cage (Con Air, Face/Off, The Wicker Man, Vampire’s Kiss), Russell Brand (Get Him To The Greek, Forgetting Sarah Marshall), Paul Sheer (The League, Piranha 3D), Will Sasso (MADtv, The Three Stooges), Wendi McLendon-Covey (Reno 911), and Rainn Wilson (Super, The Office).

armyofone4The cinematographer for the movie was Anthony Hardwick, who has worked extensively on television shows like Entourage, Important Things with Demitri Martin, and The Last Man On Earth, as well as on movies like Religulous and Bruno. Likewise, the film’s editor, Christian Kinnard, worked on a number of television shows, including Community and Superstore.

The music for Army of One was provided by David Newman, whose other works include The Spirit, Serenity, Ice Age, Death To Smoochy, Galaxy Quest, Jingle All The Way, The Mighty Ducks, Heathers, The War of the Roses, and Critters, among others.

Because Army of One released straight to streaming on demand and DVD, I couldn’t find any financial numbers for its take. However, it apparently had a very short run in select theaters, though certainly not enough to cover the production budget. That said, critically, Army of One was undoubtedly a disaster, and its low profile may have been a blessing for all involved. It currently holds a 5.0/10 IMDb user rating, along with Rotten Tomatoes scores of 27% from critics and 28% from audiences.

armyofone1If there is anything positive that can be said about Army of One, it is that Nicolas Cage is at his most zany Nicolas Cage level of recent years. On top of that, it actually seems like he put effort into the performance of Gary Faulkner, and manages to imitate his mannerisms and cadence pretty well. That said, his high-pitched voice is pretty grating, and isn’t quite true to the reality of Faulkner.

One of the biggest flaws that I noticed about Army of One was a lack of coherent direction from scene to scene, which often had to be stitched together with narration. My personal suspicion is that the writing for the film was very loose to allow for improvised comedy, but wound up so loose that the story lost all of its connectivity, and the production team tried to patch the holes with narration.

Honestly, I’m not sure how scripted the movie was in the first place: a lot of it feels like pure improvisation, to the point that I’m not sure if a pen ever hit paper for this project. Director Larry Charles undoubtedly likes trying to get organic humor out of very loose scripting, like in Curb Your Enthusiasm or Borat. However, most of the successful films that have executed this style have been filmed as pseudo-documentaries, which gives them a more natural and raw appearance and flow. This isn’t done for Army of One, which I think was a mistake, as the clash of styles struck me as both jarring and painfully unfunny.

On top of the shooting style not suiting the improvisational writing, I don’t think Cage was well suited to carry the load of improvisational comedy to the extent that was expected of him for this film. Despite being surrounded by notable and capable comedians who are familiar with the format, the comedy never flows quite right off of Cage: it all just piles up on him, and he never seems to be able to juggle or throw things back. While the guy can definitely give a funny performance, I think improvisation is a very different set of skills that has never been at his core.

armyofone3Last but not least, there is something undeniably mean-spirited about the nature of the humor in this movie. A lot of the advertising for the film compared the story to Don Quixote: a clueless hero with strong values suffers repeated failures, in comedic fashion. However, there is a difference between Faulkner and Quixote: Quixote wasn’t a real man. Faulkner is a real, living person with some very clear issues, which are played for laughs in the film. To laugh at Quixote’s naivete and foolishness on paper is one thing, but seeing these qualities in a real person isn’t so much funny as it is tragic. There are moments where it feels like Charles and company are punching down on a confused man undeserving of ire, all for the sake of a laugh. Unfortunately, getting laughs from this flick is like drawing blood from a stone, so it was basically all for nothing.

Overall, Army of One is a bit of a curiosity. While Cage’s performance is worth seeing for fans of his body of work, I think this is a movie primarily worth seeing on an educational level: there’s a lot that can be learned about improvisational comedy on film from comparing this to more successful films in the format. I personally believe that there are as many things to learn from failures as successes, and there are definitely some lessons hidden in the cracked, faulty foundation of Army of One. Also, on a mostly unrelated note, this movie has pretty well cemented my opinion that Larry Charles is a jackass.

Face/Off

Face/Off

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Today’s feature is John Woo’s 1997 hammy acting showdown, Face/Off.

Face/Off was written and produced by the duo of Mike Werb (The Mask, Darkman III, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider) and Michael Colleary (Death Wish V, Firehouse Dog).

The director for the film was action movie icon John Woo, who has been behind films like Red Cliff, Paycheck, Mission Impossible II, Hard Target, and Broken Arrow over his career.

The cinematographer on Face/Off was Oliver Wood, who shot such movies as Die Hard 2, The Other Guys, Neon Maniacs, The Adventures of Ford Fairlane, U-571, The Adventures of Pluto Nash, and Rudy.

Face/Off featured two editors: Steven Kemper (Legion, Timecop, Showdown in Little Tokyo, Aspen Extreme) and Christian Wagner (True Romance, Bad Boys, Furious 7, The Island).

The other producers for the movie included actor Michael Douglas (Ant-Man, The Game, Falling Down), Jonathan D. Krane (Swordfish, Battlefield Earth, CHUD II: Bud the Chud), Steven Reuther (Hider In The House, Under Siege), Terence Chang (Paycheck, Windtalkers), David Permut (Captain Ron, Farce of the Penguins), Jeff Levine (Slither, 8MM), and Barrie M. Osborne (The Matrix, Cotton Club).

faceoff5The music for the film was provided by John Powell, and was his future-length film credit. He has since provided scores for movies like Antz, The Road To El Dorado, Shrek, Rat Race, The Bourne Identity, Gigli, Happy Feet, The Adventures of Pluto Nash, and How To Train Your Dragon, among others.

The special effects unit included such workers as Bryan Sides (Mimic, Species II), Robert DeVine (Wild Wild West, RoboCop 3), Tony Acosta (Bordello of Blood, Volcano), Joseph Mercurio (Mommie Dearest, 8MM), Henry Millar, Jr. (Young Frankenstein, Capricorn One), David A. Poole (Gigli, Waterworld), Anthony Simonaitis (Torque, Swordfish), R. Bruce Steinheimer (John Wick, Argo, The Running Man), and Richard Zarro (Class of 1999, Predator 2).

faceoff4The visual effects team for the movie included Allen Blaisdell (Red Planet, Dracula 2000, Theodore Rex, Shocker), Derry Frost (Epic Movie, Swordfish, Torque), Douglas Harsch (Dracula 2000, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen), Richard E. Hollander (Winter’s Tale, Daredevil, Timecop), Mark Tait Lewis (Red Planet, Deep Blue Sea), and Scott Schneider (On Deadly Ground).

The makeup effects in Face/Off were provided by a team that included David Atherton (Shocker), Ken Brilliant (Congo), Michelle Bühler (Swordfish, The People Under The Stairs), Grady Holder (Pick Me Up, Lake Placid, Small Soldiers, The Island of Doctor Moreau, Children of the Corn III, Waterworld), Nina Kraft (Con Air, The Rock), Mike Measimer (Stuck, Space Truckers, Castle Freak), Gilbert Mosko (Bratz, Star Trek: First Contact), Brian Penikas (Trick or Treat, Leviathan), Shaun Smith (Captain America, Children of the Corn III), Mario Torres Jr. (Hollow Man, Starship Troopers), Kevin Yagher (The Dentist, 976-EVIL, Trick or Treat, A Nightmare On Elm Street 2), and Mark Yagher (Starship Troopers, Sleepy Hollow).

The cast for Face/Off includes Nicolas Cage (Vampire’s Kiss, Con Air), John Travolta (Battlefield Earth, Swordfish), Joan Allen (Pleasantville), Alessandro Nivola (Jurassic Park III), Gina Gershon (The Insider, Showgirls), Nick Cassavetes (Blind Fury, Class of 1999 II), and Thomas Jane (Deep Blue Sea, The Punisher).

faceoff6The plot of Face/Off follows an obsessive cop (Travolta) and his criminal arch-nemesis (Cage), who is captured after an intense sting. However, it is decided after the raid that Travolta must go undercover to foil a pending plot by Cage’s organization. In order to do this, he must pose as Cage, who has fallen into a coma with severe injuries. He goes through an experimental surgery to graft Cage’s face onto his own, and begins the operation completely off the books. Cage unexpectedly revives in police custody (sans face), and easily steals Travolta’s identity, thus turning the undercover plot upside down. What follows is an epic duel of mistaken identities and deception.

Reportedly, John Woo insisted on leaving the slash in the title of Face/Off (in defiance of the studio) to ensure that people would not think that the film was about hockey.

faceoff7The original screenplay for the movie had the plot taking place in the distant future, which helps to explain some of the futuristic  technologies showcased in the prion and the surgeries. John Woo is said to have specifically changed the setting to the present day to make the conflict more identifiable and dramatic.

Mark Wahlberg apparently turned down the role of Pollox Troy, Nicolas Cage’s brother and right hand man in Face/Off. Other potential alternate castings had Stallone and Schwarzenegger in the lead roles, Patrick Swayze, Alec Baldwin, Bruce Willis, Steven Seagal, or Jean Claude Van Damme involved in some capacity, the Heat combo of Pacino and De Niro taking the leads, or the far more unlikely duo of Harrison Ford and producer Michael Douglas headlining.

The high-tech magnetic boots worn in the prison sequences were reused props the featured prominently in Super Mario Bros., which released four years earlier.

faceoff3 faceoff2Face/Off was made on a significant budget of $80 million, on which it managed to gross over $245 million in its lifetime theatrical run. Critics and audience both generally liked it, and it is fondly remembered as one of the most bizarre action movies of the era. Currently, it holds Rotten Tomatoes aggregate scores of 92% from critics and 83% from audiences, alongside an IMDb score of 7.3.

What is there to say about the joy that is Face/Off? This is a showcase of two of the hammiest showboats in the business, and they both fire on all cylinders here. The action and plot is fun (if not particularly smart), and there are plenty of highlights throughout the film. The only criticism I really have is that Travolta and Cage eclipse anyone else who dares to appear on screen, so the accessory cast is mostly just there to fill in empty space. That said: who cares? People went to this movie to see Cage and Travolta try to out-act each other, and that is exactly what is delivered with Face/Off.

If you haven’t seen Face/Off, this is absolutely an essential of the action genre. I feel like this should go on a high shelf of honor next to Tango & Cash as one of the most ridiculously fun, silly action movies of all time. If my word isn’t good enough for you, check out The Nostalgia Critic, How Did This Get Made?, and Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, who all have plenty to say about the film.

Vampire’s Kiss

Vampire’s Kiss

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Today’s feature is arguably the most Nicolas Cage of all of the Nicolas Cage movies: “Vampire’s Kiss.”

“Vampire’s Kiss” was written by Joseph Minion, who also wrote the screenplay for Martin Scorcese’s cult classic comedy “After Hours.” The director for “Vampire’s Kiss” was a fellow named Robert Bierman who was taking on his first directorial role on a feature film.

The cinematography for “Vampire’s Kiss” was provided by Stefan Czapsky, who would later work on a number of Tim Burton films (such as “Ed Wood” and “Batman Returns”), as well as the horror sequel “Child’s Play 2.”

The musical score for “Vampire’s Kiss” was composed by Colin Towns, who primarily did music for television shows. However, he provided scores for a couple of Stuart Gordon movies: “Daughter of Darkness” and “Space Truckers.”

The “Vampire’s Kiss” special effects makeup team included Ed French (“Midnight Meat Train,” “Epic Movie,” “The Stuff,” “C.H.U.D.”), Erik Schaper (“Bride of Re-Animator”), and Cindy Gardner (“The Matrix Reloaded,” “Starsky & Hutch”).

vampireskiss4The producers for “Vampire’s Kiss” were John Daly (“Best Seller,” “The Terminator,” “Platoon”), Barbara Zitwer (“The Ambulance,” “It’s Alive 3”), Barry Shils (“The Stuff,” “Special Effects”), Derek Gibson (“The Return of the Living Dead,” “Hoosiers”), Matthew Ferro (“Happy Feet,” “Face/Off”), and Marcia Shulman (“Buffy The Vampire Slayer”),

The primary editor for “Vampire’s Kiss” was a man named Angus Newton, who has worked on television shows and movies like “Scandal,” “Dreamchild,” and “Foyle’s War.”

The production designer for “Vampire’s Kiss” was Christopher Nowak, who later worked on “The X-Files” and “Coming To America.”

The cast is, of course, headlined by the mad Coppola himself, Nicolas Cage. The rest of the primary on-screen performers included Maria Conchita Alonso (“Predator 2,” “The Running Man”), Jennifer Beals (“Flashdance,” “Four Rooms”), Elizabeth Ashley (“Treme,” “Dragnet”), Kasi Lemmons (“The Silence of the Lambs,” “Black Nativity”), and Jessica Lundy (“Caddyshack II”).

The story of “Vampire’s Kiss” centers around an abusive and erratic publishing agent who slowly descends into madness, believing that he has been turned into a vampire during a one night stand.

vampireskiss3Nicolas Cage’s performance in “Vampire’s Kiss” is notorious not only for his appearance, but also for his behind-the-scenes behavior. During one sequence, Cage actually eats a real cockroach, which was apparently both Cage’s idea and done based on his adamant insistence. He even insisted on the production using a real bat for the scene where he is bitten, until he was eventually talked down by the director. Cage also has said that he rehearsed in his hotel room constantly during his off-time. Better yet, he did so with the company of his cat, Lewis, whom he let live in the hotel room throughout filming, barring any attendants from making up the room. Whether due to Lewis or Cage’s recital performances, the hotel room was left in shambles by the time production wrapped.

vampireskiss5Speaking of which, all of the property destruction caused by Cage in “Vampire’s Kiss” was real.  The production couldn’t afford fake glass or prop furniture, so all of the various objects that Cage destroys were absolutely genuine, and has to be torn apart by the OneTrueGod’s genuine wrath.

The recently cult following behind Nicolas Cage’s unique take on the method acting style often praises “Vampire’s Kiss” as one of the finest examples of Cage in his peak, ludicrous form. The fandom around his style has spawned a popular subreddit (r/OneTrueGod), as well as a meme developed from a “Vampire’s Kiss” screenshot.

vampireskiss2According to Nicolas Cage, the $40,000 he was paid for his performance in “Vampire’s Kiss” was spent on a 1967 Corvette Sting Ray that he still owns, which he refers to as ‘The Vampire’s Kiss,’ which is a pretty great nickname for a car.

The DVD director’s commentary for “Vampire’s Kiss” also features Nicolas Cage, who provides some fantastic insight into his personal outlook and mentality about the film. Here are a couple of memorable quotes:

“I cared more about this performance than any other in my career…(I wanted) to get it right.”

“Over the top is one of those things that doesn’t work with me, because I don’t believe there is such a thing.”

The daughter of acclaimed writer/director Larry Cohen (“The Stuff,” “Maniac Cop,” “Black Caesar,” “It’s Alive”), Jill Gatsby, appears in “Vampire’s Kiss” as one of Nicolas Cage’s later victims. A number of the producers on “Vampire’s Kiss” had previously worked on Larry Cohen movies such as “It’s Alive 3” and “Special Effects.”

Before Nic Cage became formally attached to the picture, Judd Nelson (“Steel,” “The Boondock Saints II”) was cast to play the lead in “Vampire’s Kiss,” but backed out after receiving a better offer, likely for the William Lustig (“Maniac Cop 2,” “Maniac Cop 3”) film “Relentless.”

vampireskiss6“Vampire’s Kiss” bears vague similarities to a couple of more highly acclaimed films: George Romero’s “Martin” and Roman Polanski’s “Fearless Vampire Killers.” “Martin,” much like “Vampire’s Kiss,” features a protagonist in a modern setting who believes himself to be a vampire, and suffers a very similar ending to the one portrayed in “Vampire’s Kiss.” However, that film is a pretty straight drama, with not much in the way of comedy. “Fearless Vampire Killers,” on the other hand, is a dark comedy centered around vampires, which more closely resembles to tone that Bierman was allegedly aiming for with “Vampire’s Kiss,” and is directly mentioned as an influence in his DVD commentary. The ultimate product of “Vampire’s Kiss” seems to exist in a limbo state between those two features, with a confusing tone that can’t seem to settle on which direction it wants to go in.

Because of the unclear tone and surreal aspects of “Vampire’s Kiss,” the marketing for the film clearly struggled to sell audiences on the film. Some of the posters and cover art that you will find make the film look like a traditional horror, whereas others make it appear to be a silly comedy.

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“Vampire’s Kiss” mostly flew under the radar for it’s theatrical release, grossing less than $750,000 in a limited run on a $2 million budget. The reception that it did receive wasn’t positive, in spite of the cult status it has attained in recent years as a “good-bad” flick. It currently holds Rotten Tomatoes scores of 59% (critics) and 54% (audience), with an IMDb rating of 5.8.

From watching “Vampire’s Kiss,” you can tell that it was clearly a low budget production with an inexperienced crew, and thus has a very authentically amateur feel to it, which can sometimes work in a film’s favor (“The Texas Chain Saw Massacre,” for instance). Unfortunately, that isn’t particularly the case here.

One of the biggest problems with “Vampire’s Kiss” is a baffling lack of focus, like it was never completely worked out ahead of time by the director after he read the screenplay. The result is a meandering tone that never feels quite coherent, almost like it was directed steam-of-consciousness. It still isn’t completely clear what Bierman’s intention for the film was, and he isn’t quite able to elucidate it himself based on the director’s commentary. I would be interested to hear Joseph Minion’s thoughts on the film and what his vision was for the original screenplay. The only information I could find is that he wrote the screenplay in two weeks, that there were no rewrites, and that the only thing on screen that he didn’t write was Nic Cage’s infamous cockroach scene:

”The only thing that wasn’t in the script was Nick (Cage) eating a cockroach. That was his own contribution.”
– Joseph Minion on “Vampire’s Kiss”

The background of “Vampire’s Kiss” is almost as entertaining as the primary story itself. The production couldn’t afford extras, so a lot of the people in the background are either crew members, or, more frequently, are just real New Yorkers strolling by. This is particularly entertaining to watch during sequences where Cage is howling and flailing his way down the street. There are also a number of mimes that appear in the background of scenes, which were included for reasons that no one seems to remember.

Last but not least, “Vampire’s Kiss” both lives and dies by Nicolas Cage. The entire film orbits around his astoundingly strange performance, including exaggerated hand gestures, perplexing accents, sudden explosive outbursts, and borderline inhuman facial expressions. Whether someone likes this movie or not absolutely depends on their opinion of Nicolas Cage’s acting style, because the entire movie essentially functions as a showcase of the man at his most extreme limits.

Overall, I believe that “Vampire’s Kiss” has earned its reputation as a good-bad classic, and is the single greatest example of Nicolas Cage at his most bizarre zenith. I recommend checking this one out to just about anyone who enjoys bad movies or Nic Cage performances. Even for casual movie watchers, I at least insist that they check out some of the highlight compilations that are littered across YouTube, at least for the cultural knowledge.