The Nic Cage Jukebox 7: Left Behind (2014 – Vic Armstrong)

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Each week, one randomly selected film from Nicolas Cage’s career.  Hopefully we can begin to figure out exactly what he’s been up to all these years.

I used to think about the apocalypse every day.

Growing up in a religious household meant that the end of days was always on the tip of the tongue.  My mind couldn’t quite grasp the symbolism involved though; the promise of a new body led me to believe that my head, arms and legs would trot off to paradise to meet a new tummy, like some ecclesiastical Transformer.  My parents would promise me that the afterlife was bliss – endless conversations would be held over the topic of treasure (apparently god wasn’t talking about the same things as pirates).  And one day I was told that nobody would know when and where the world would end.

Now, I didn’t want the world to end.  I was barely getting used the world as it was, even if it didn’t for me extend that much further than the limits of Tunbridge Wells.  I realised that if I thought about the end of the world as much as possible, then I would always know the time and place, and therefore, according to god’s logic, the world could not end.

It became, as these things often do, a kind of silent obsession that dwelled within my mind.  Looking back, it was a deeply unhealthy thing for a child to think about, but then again, children are always obsessed with death, such is their habit of playing dead, their tongues hanging absurdly out of their mouths.

(Years later, I realised every generation has assumed they are in the end of days, including the one which wrote the Bible.  The failure of the world to end is one of the strongest evidences for the failure of religion.)

I don’t presume that these peculiarities are unique to a Christian upbringing.  Every childhood has its misconceptions.  But religions are particular subcultures.  They have their own languages and practices and entertainments.  Every now and then, some bro-dude on twitter will start laughing at the Christian film culture that exists in America.  And like most performative acts, it reveals more about the small-minded arrogance of the accuser than the accused.  Because, as much as I resent the indoctrination of my youth, I can’t escape the truth that the majority of people I encountered within that culture were some of the kindest, most generous people I have ever known.

So who cares if they have their bland, safe cinephilia?

(I mean, I care a little bit, because Nic Cage was in one of those films, and it popped up on the jukebox.  So I had to watch it, and it’s not very good.  And it curiously presents all the Christians in the film as pretty unappealing individuals, which is… odd… for an evangelistic film.  It’s nearly two hours long, and for huge swathes of it, it feels like you’ve accidently stumbled into an Alpha Course.)

So the question must be posed, if heaven is a paradise, with no pain or hurt or suffering, will it have Left Behind in it?

Nicolas Cage Jukebox rankings:

 

  1. Lord of War
  2. The Runner
  3. Rumble Fish
  4. Peggy Sue Got Married
  5. Windtalkers
  6. Left Behind
  7. Pay the Ghost

 

The Nic Cage Jukebox 6: Peggy Sue Got Married (1986 – Francis Ford Coppola)

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Each week, one randomly selected film from Nicolas Cage’s career.  Hopefully we can begin to figure out exactly what he’s been up to all these years.

 

I’ve recently finished reading Alec Baldwin’s autobiography Nevertheless.  It’s bitchy and vain and pages and pages of it are taken up score settling.  It’s everything you’d want it to be.  Highlights include, Baldwin telling us we’d be lucky if he ran for president of the United States, a whole paragraph talking about how difficult it is to be married to a much younger woman because she doesn’t understand his reference to subway tokens, and endless vitriol directed at Kim Basinger.  Everything about her is criticised… except her looks.  Baldwin can’t help but remind us that he was married to a very attractive woman.

But the pettiest hatred in the book is reserved for Harrison Ford.  See, Alec is still upset that Ford took the role of Jack Ryan from him… TWENTY-FIVE YEARS AGO!  (sidenote: does Ford feel the same way about Affleck?)  After two pages of deriding Ford for his lack of an Oscar, Baldwin comes up with this gem:

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I think it’s my favourite moment in literature.  What I love about it is Baldwin’s very specific criticism of Ford in that he has a slightly weedy voice.  Much was made in 30 Rock of Baldwin’s gravelly, demonstrative vocal presentation, but until this moment, I didn’t realise that this emphasis on clear diction came from Baldwin’s own neuroses.

What is it about the voice that makes or breaks an actor?  Tom Cruise rarely does anything beyond a mutter in his movies, and he’s the last star we’ll ever see.  Why can it seem so important in a medium that began in silence?

 

Occasionally, I have dreams that I’m back in secondary school.  And even in these fantasies, logic kicks in and reminds me that I have a degree, but despite this, my subconsciousness will come up for an explanation for why I am there.  And you know what… those dreams aren’t interesting.  They’re just the product of a nervous mind trying to process the trauma of youth.  Peggy Sue Got Married isn’t a very lively film, because despite what we’re sold, being young isn’t actually that fun.  We’re pretty ignorant and hormonal and have no money, and everyone looks down on us.  Something must be deeply wrong if anyone wanted to relive their teenage years.

But it does feature a brilliant, early performance of Nic Cage, where he performs with a heightened, nasal vocal pitch.  It’s completely out-of-sync with the rest of the cast, and is noticeably annoying them in some scenes.  And it’s kind of wonderful, because it firstly reminds us that an interesting performance is always better than a good one, and secondly, because seeing an actor actively trolling his colleagues is so entertaining.  I wish it would happen more often.

Nicolas Cage Jukebox rankings:

 

  1. Lord of War
  2. The Runner
  3. Rumble Fish
  4. Peggy Sue Got Married
  5. Windtalkers
  6. Pay the Ghost

 

The Nic Cage Jukebox 5: The Runner (2015 – Austin Stark)

Each week, one randomly selected film from Nicolas Cage’s career.  Hopefully we can begin to figure out exactly what he’s been up to all these years.

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The problem with Nic Cage is sifting through the garbage.  Not the actual films – for the most part, they actually seem pretty worthwhile – but sifting through the nonsense and caricatures and memes that surround this man’s career by this stage.  The opinion of him seems more prevalent than the reality of him; lightweight films, with nonsensical plots and exaggerated performances from our man Nic… usually featuring an appalling hairpiece.

But the reality is quite different.  Cage is fairly dedicated actor, who performs his roles with a level of realism.  The world acted surprised when Cage starred in Joe (2013 – David Gordon Green); many commented that this was a strangely naturalistic performance from Cage.  But delve a little deeper into the man’s career and you will see that this is a fairly common choice of performance he makes.  The stereotyped expectation seems to stem from the Bruckheimer films he has appeared in, performances that catapulted him into stardom.

He isn’t helped by the way that he is marketed.  Look at the DVD cover for The Runner:

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It gives the impression of a possible action movie, and failing that, a thriller.  There are explosions and a mean looking Cage walking determinedly towards the camera.  What is he looking at?  Some possible danger about to strike.

But The Runner isn’t even a thriller.  It’s a small-scale drama about a politician trying to rebuild his life after a fairly grotty sex-scandal.  It features an affecting, quite naturalistic central performance from Cage and typically strong supporting work from Sarah Paulson, Connie Nielsen and Peter Fonda.  It obviously brought a decent amount of work to the film industry of New Orleans (there’s a small article to be written about films set there since the implementation of tax breaks following Hurricane Katrina).  And it’s really quite good.  Cage is quite brilliant as a man trying to qualify his dignity; it doesn’t matter how old we are, we’re all still trying to figure out who we are, and cage embodies this struggle exceptionally well.

So how on Earth are we going to be able to get to the truth of Nic Cage when even the films he is in market him in such a misleading manner.  This is a very strong film about the events of the BP oil spill of 2010; one that is comfortable situated between the action adventure of Deepwater Horizon (2016 – Peter Berg) and the sanctimonious moralising Aaron Sorkin in the misbegotten first season of The Newsroom.  I feel that ‘under-appreciated’ is a term that will become pedestrian because it is so often applied to Cage, but it feels so appropriate here.  The Runner is a really terrific little film.

Nicolas Cage Jukebox rankings:

 

  1. Lord of War
  2. The Runner
  3. Rumble Fish
  4. Windtalkers
  5. Pay the Ghost

The Nic Cage Jukebox 4: Rumble Fish (1983 – Francis Ford Coppola)

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Each week, one randomly selected film from Nicolas Cage’s career.  Hopefully we can begin to figure out exactly what he’s been up to all these years.

 

 

It must frustrate Stewart Copeland immensely that all his soundtracks sound like the noodling parts of a late-nineties Sting album.  There’s a tendency to point to Sting as the most irritating member of The Police – but watch/read any interview from their mid-2000 reunion, and you will see that Copeland is the most obnoxious man on the planet.  He claims The Police were his band (on a technicality), but he wrote precisely one good song across their five albums – Miss Gradenko – and even that isn’t as good as Oh My God (sample lyric = ‘Hello mister brontosaurus, don’t you have a lesson for us?’)

The laziest assumptions are applied the career of Nic Cage.  They assume that he acts in an absurd number of films without regard for their quality.  He performs in a manner which gives little consideration of realistic human behaviour.  That he is a product of nepotism.  That his hair is outrageous.  These assumptions characterise the most banal of television comedy sketches an internet meme; but even a cursory overview of his co-stars in Rumble Fish will indicated that he is far from alone in any of these qualities.  We’ll rate six of his fellow actors out of five in the following categories to assess whether they are a more mem-worthy movie star than Nic Cage himself.  (I’m getting increasingly frustrated that I have to do this; the more Cage films I see, the more an engaging, charismatic figure he appears to be.)

 

Matt Dillon:

I’ll do anything:  3 – Dillon would be higher, but his issue doesn’t seem to be whether he’s in a lot of films, it’s more whether any films want him to be in them.  Things are drying up for Matt Dillon, he’s had to resort to television acting, and the poster for the one movie he has directed tries to sell the picture on the locations used, rather than any talent involved.

I am a realistic actor: 2 – Nope, again probably due to lack of talent, rather than any conscious effort.  Dillon’s range doesn’t extend much further than ‘bit of a douche’.

Nepotism: 2 – whilst Dillon isn’t the product of nepotism, he does lose marks for being responsible for the career of his brother.

Hairline: 0 – Matt Dillon has pretty fucking beautiful hair.

Mickey Rourke:

I’ll do anything: 5 – bad.  Blew all his early success, has appeared in more than one erotic thriller, a terrible Iron Man sequel, and managed to blow the career renaissance he experienced after the success of The Wrestler.

I am a realistic actor: 3 – Rourke reaches for naturalism through the age-old trick of ‘mumbling’.

Nepotism: 0 – nothing to say.

Hairline: 4 – pretty bad, due to his insistence of having hair that is always long and greasy.  And now, silver.

 

Diane Lane:

I’ll do anything: 3 – we can’t judge Lane too harshly, because of Hollywood’s inherent sexism, but she’s gotta lose points for appearing in John Cusack romantic comedies.  Some consideration was given to her appearance in an erotic thriller – but it’s one of the good ones (Unfaithful).

I am a realistic actor: 3 – Lane learnt to rely on her natural charm fairly early on, and hasn’t sought to push herself out of it.

Nepotism: 2 – her father had some background in acting, but she appears to have done everything she could to succeed on her own terms.

Hairline: 0 – Diane Lane has pretty fucking great hair.

Laurence Fishburne:

I’ll do anything: 4 – fairly high, as Fishburne has slipped into being an ‘elder statesman’ position, where he will pop up in any old trash to add a degree of gravitas to some genre nonsense.

I am a realistic actor:  4 – I think he was, but honestly, the memory of John Wick: Chapter 2 is fresh in my mind.

Nepotism:  0 – admirably, Fishburne has made his own way.

Hairline: 3 – I’m actually punishing him here, as I don’t think he has been brave enough in his hair choices.

Dennis Hopper:

I’ll do anything: 5 – now this is high.  Hopper would appear in any old shit – and that would extend to documentaries, video games, television work (he very nearly took a guest role on Doctor Who).  Hell, Wikipedia has him appearing in thirteen different projects in 2008.

I am a realistic actor:  5 – never realistic, always obsessive and nervy and a thoroughly disconcerting screen presence, Hopper never aspired to realism.  However, we don’t care, because his freakishness is so well employed in The Last Movie and Blue Velvet.

Nepotism: 0 – Hopper does seem to have made it on his own.  It’s strange, that America, which prides itself on being a meritocracy, is so reliant on nepotism for success.

Hairline: 4 – I mean, I’m pretty sure he was wearing a wig for the last decade or so – his hairline does seem to have mysteriously lowered in that time.

Sofia Coppola:

I’ll do anything: 2 – or, I’ll do anything my dad makes for a decade or so.  After that, I’ll go on to be one of the most exciting filmmakers of the new millennium.  So, swings and roundabouts.

I am a realistic actor:  3 – I really don’t think it’s fair to judge her as an actress; it’s not really her interest any more, and it’s the subject of so many cheap jokes that I don’t really want to add to the chatter.

Nepotism: 5 – I mean it’s high (obviously), but then she also made The Bling Ring, which is easily one of the greatest films ever made.

Hairline: 0 – Sofia Coppola has pretty fucking wonderful hair.

 

So, Nic Cage’s career is just as weird and desperate as any other.  Not everyone can be Daniel Day-Lewis after all.

Nicolas Cage Jukebox rankings:

 

  1. Lord of War
  2. Rumble Fish
  3. Windtalkers
  4. Pay the Ghost

The Nic Cage Jukebox 3: Pay the Ghost (2015 – Uli Edel)

Each week, one randomly selected film from Nicolas Cage’s career.  Hopefully we can begin to figure out exactly what he’s been up to all these years.

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There was a time when there were just bad films.  I mean, there were bad films that weren’t actually bad films, just hidden gems.  But the bad films were simply bad.  And now, with an astonishing level of phoniness, bad films have become ‘bad’ films.  The modern world is so drenched in insincerity, that bad films are there to be ‘enjoyed’ with a smug level of detachment that befits a generation indulged in the luxury of expressing their every thought, no matter how banal or moronic, into the social media sphere.  This level of irony is so prevalent, so unable to distinguish between actual levels of quality, that it makes attending a revival screening quite tense.  Seeing Body Double (1984 – Brian De Palma) in amidst the hipster elite of that London became almost nerve-wracking, so close did the audience come to laughing out loud at the romantic swirling and melodrama of De Palma’s camera.

Because this is a bad film.  It’s a film that ends on a shot of a terrible CGI vulture in some kind of half-arsed attempt at a twist ending.  The vulture has something to do with the eponymous ghost, but the predicament, and tension and plot of this film are extraordinarily ill-defined.  There are flittering moments when the film seems to shudder into life, such as when Nic Cage stumbles into what can only be described as a poundland recreation of the orgy in Eyes Wide Shut (1999 – Stanley Kubrick), but the film doesn’t even have the integrity to follow through (much like Tom Cruise…) and it turns out to be a red herring.

The most distracting thing is I became obsessed with the reality of your son suddenly coming back to life after having been missing for a year.  Just think of the gaps he’d have in school.  It would be impossible to ensure that child made progress.

The sickening thing is this film is simultaneously everything that people simplify Nic Cage films into and also nothing like these prejudices at all.  It’s both nonsensical and disposable and features Cage with some strangely distracting hair, but also he gives a performance of discreet dignity where the character’s love of Poe doesn’t dominate, and instead, he becomes a ghost himself, haunted by the loss of his son.  You can’t meme this film.  You can’t simplify and reduce it for a quick laugh.  His dedication and intelligence as an actor stand in bold defiance to the simple irony of the film culture he is appearing in.  He’s so capable, that he rises above the dross of a film like this.

Nicolas Cage Jukebox rankings:

 

  1. Lord of War
  2. Windtalkers
  3. Pay the Ghost

The Nic Cage Jukebox 2: Windtalkers (2002 – John Woo)

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Each week, one randomly selected film from Nicolas Cage’s career.  Hopefully we can begin to figure out exactly what he’s been up to all these years.

 

Dear John,

How are things?  I’ve seen the movie… and, well… it’s a bit self-conscious.  I know you won’t want to hear this, but here in the future, no one is even attempting a ‘hidden classic’ style piece on Windtalkers.  I tried.  I really tried, but I couldn’t do it, and I have managed to write several paragraphs on why Paycheck is actually quite good.  And that film stars the walking smirk of Ben Affleck.

One day we must sit down and work out where it all went wrong.  I mean, in the eighties, you’re the coolest director on the planet and a true iconoclast of action cinema.  You see the encroaching censorship heading to Hong Kong that will follow the repatriation of 1997, and flee, like so many have done before you, to America.  Where despite the many opportunities presented to you, you never quite seem to connect with the cinematic surroundings.  Your films are successful, but never stratospheric, and you begin working to the whims of others.  I find it hard to type this, but you end up making the fourth best Mission: Impossible movie, and honestly, I think I’m just being generous to you given my aversion of the cinematic non-entity of J. J. Abrams.

What’s worse is that you end up having to go and work in the same oppressive Chinese industry that you once sought to flee.

Oh well.  I was thinking, back during the Second World War (or The Great War II as I like to call it – don’t you think we’ve got less imaginative with our war naming recently?) many directors, including Johns Ford and Huston, went to work on the frontline.  What would happen if a similar conflict broke out now?  How would you fare if you, and your peers, were sent to fight for freedom, and justice and all those other concepts which don’t really seem to exist.  I think you’ve be alright, but honestly, I’m not sure many others would stand a chance.  Those guys seemed a little tough – they had eye-patches and cigars and shit – but nowadays, directors just seem to be white dudes in baseball caps.

For what it’s worth:

  • Peter Hyams – would talk the talk, but end up crying in a ditch somewhere. Same applies for Quentin Tarantino.
  • James Gray – would be the victim of some uttlerly deliberate friendly fire after he talked about the virtues of Amarcord once too often.
  • J. Abrams – would just try to copy a previous war, except this time recast the Nazis as Benedict Cumberbatch.
  • Joe Swanberg – would be useless, except if the world war turned out to be against film critics, in which case he would punch them out with ease.
  • David Fincher – would turn the gun on himself. But not before he told you what a shit you were and how it was all your fault.

I think I’d really only like to serve under James Cameron – that guy is an absolute loon!  That’s what you need in a war.

Anyway, I just don’t understand why you made Windtalkers so safe and why you didn’t allow a morally conflicted Nic Cage to fully let loose.  You just end up giving the impression that war is manageable, and I’m sure it’s not.

Write back soon,

Yours faithfully,

Tim

p.s. if I ask really nicely, will you direct a John Wick film for me…

Nicolas Cage Jukebox rankings:

 

  1. Lord of War
  2. Windtalkers

The Nic Cage Jukebox 1: Lord of War (2005 – Andrew Niccol)

It took me several viewings before I realised Joaquin Phoenix was meant to be nineteen or so in Two Lovers (2008 – James Gray).  And that’s after reading a whole book of interviews with James Gray (a well-thumbed copy is no doubt lovingly laid out on one table in his house.  ‘It’s where I go for inspiration,’ says Jim, oblivious to the cynicism around him.)  I just thought that Phoenix was experiencing a moment of arrested development, or that rents were high or something.

I say that, because there’s a moment in Lord of War where a forty-year-old Cage is playing a teenage Cage.  And it doesn’t quite work; but at least it’s only in a scene or two, rather than THE WHOLE FUCKING MOVIE!

Lord of War, like the movies of James Gray, is set in part in Little Odessa.  Equally to them, it is a paper-thin Scorsese knock-off; mainly a cover version of Goodfellas (1990).  (James Gray would no doubt claim that he does not produce Scorsese knock-offs, but rather Visconti or Fellini knock-offs.  I’m belittling Gray a bit too much here, given that I actually quite like his movies, but ruddy hell, the only remotely fun film on his favourite fifty (fifty) films of all time is Au Hasard Balthazar (1965 – Robert Bresson), a relentlessly bleak film about the miserable life of donkey Jesus.)

I’m not sure why Nic Cage needed to be in a Scorsese imitation, because he’d worked with the real deal (in the hazy, oppressive Bringing Out the Dead (1999)).  Is his motivation that he really doesn’t like guns?  But Cage, the eternal wanderer, the man who will never settle, does this film because he needs to move beyond Scorsese.  Where Marty relies on imbuing his thoroughly dislikeable protagonists with a nobility and form of honour, Lord of War seeks to underline the true irresponsibility of the corrupt and selfish.  There is only greed to these people; there is no consideration of others, and Nic Cage needs you to see that.

There are Scorsesian attempts to inflict pop music in moments of horror, but the music chosen is the favourite of every tedious university student seeking to show their artistic side – Jeff Buckley’s dirge-like cover of Hallelujah.  (I imagine Buckley is on some Pacific island somewhere alongside Tupac and Eva Cassidy, living off the royalties from this song.)  Like the movie itself, no matter the qualities of the piece of art, it only reminds you that someone more talented did it first, and they had Robert De Niro.

Nic Cage is playing it relatively straight here with only one or two glimpses into heightened, expressionistic acting.  He seems sane, largely because he has been cast opposite everyone’s fifth favourite Joker… Jared Leto.  Leto is an actor who likes the idea of being interesting but never quite convinces you that he doesn’t spend 90% of life masturbating over pictures of Lego.  He is an anti-Cage, an actor who dulls the screen, and makes the most conventional choices possible.  Here we learn that being an addict involves a bit of crying and a bit of over-enthusiastic dancing at weddings.  You’re opposite Nic Cage, Jared Leto.  You need to raise your game.  He over-enthusiastically danced to Handel’s Messiah (I think Buckley’s planning to posthumously cover that one too).  Sort it out, you try-hard.

Nicolas Cage Jukebox rankings:

 

  1. Lord of War