Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Nicolas Cage - Greatest American Actor: Raising Arizona, Valley Girl, Vampire's Kiss

Sadly, I didn't get to as much of the Brattle's "Nicolas Cage - Greatest American Actor" series as I would have liked to; the weekend just did not make it easy to see the stuff I would have enjoyed seeing for the first time (Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance) or again (Snake Eyes) as opposed to the stuff I don't really need to see again (Con Air and Face/Off). This selection of early entries, though, worked pretty well for me. I'm never going to love Raising Arizona like all the other movie lovers, but Valley Girl and Vampire's Kiss both became oddball favorites; they've got goals that they go for, and you've got to appreciate that.

And while Ned and the other folks at the Brattle likely have their tongue a little bit in cheek at this series's title, it's not at all hard to legitimately love this guy. It actually kind of surprised me when my brother Matt said Cage was a turn-off when he was looking at a movie's cast, because as much crud as he's been in in his time (and, oh, has he been in some crud), he seldom gives less than a full effort. He's hugely entertaining even in stuff like The Rock, or when making that first Ghost Rider movie fun to watch through sheer force of will.

That's why it's pretty sad that he has, of late, been doing stuff that seems pretty much direct-to-video quality because he needs the money to pay back his debts. Sure, the occasional Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans gets tossed in there, but it's not nearly enough.

Speaking of which, that closes out the series on Thursday, as a double feature with the remade Wicker Man - which, apparently, is misunderstood by his lights - a few years after it came out, someone asked him in an interview about how he felt about being in one of the great unintentional comedies, and his reply was "unintentional? how could you think I did any of that by accident?" Which is kind of why I love the guy - he can give the kind of performance that wins awards in Leaving Las Vegas or Adaptation, but he knows when to go big in a different sort of movie, and he has fun when he can.

So let's all meet up Thursday and see two of his bigger recent roles - one of which I love, and one I suspect I will.

Raising Arizona

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 12 June 2012 in the Brattle Theatre (Nicolas Cage: Greatest American Actor, 35mm)

Raising Arizona is the sort of movie that appears early in a lot of filmmakers careers, as they do all the weird scenes and unconventional camerawork that they've had running through their heads since they first picked up a camera and got an idea of what it could do. Most get more conventional afterward, and the Coen brothers did too, but no so much; they've mostly become better at being quirky.

It's not like they were bad at it back in 1987; they just needed some practice. Granted some of the most memorable scenes, like Hi trying to wrangle the Arizona quints in the beginning and the Snoats brothers yelling for no reason as they escape from prison or get in a car, might have been cut for really making no sense when you get right down to it. It's a weirdly distancing sort of aesthetic, with the narration seeming to allow the audience fairly deep into Hi's head but everything else just kind of coldly peculiar. Even the big dollop of sentiment at the end is kind of chilly.

Fortunately, as a comedy, it mostly works. The jokes are weird, but they're generally pretty funny. The Coens are able to go big with their slapstick, and they've got a cast that can handle the eccentricity of these characters well enough. There's nothing there that isn't kind of gleefully deranged, which is as it should be.

And yet, somehow, this just doesn't connect to me. I can see that everyone involved is doing a good job, I'll smile fairly frequently, but for some reason, it just doesn't make me laugh the way it seems like it should and the way its reputation implies it works for others. I wish it did.

Valley Girl

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 12 June 2012 in the Brattle Theatre (Nicolas Cage: Greatest American Actor, 35mm)

Valley Girl is kind of great because it just is what it is without any irony whatsoever - a movie about a teenage girl in the early 1980s torn between the outsider she likes and the guy who fits in with her crowd. There is absolutely no winking at the audience, subverting the formula, or revealing anybody as not being what they appear to be. It's a teen romantic comedy that is going to live and die entirely on sincerity.

And, believe it or not, it works. There's just a tremendous amount of charm to almost every single performance, especially Deborah Foreman as Julie, the title character, and first-billed Nicolas Cage as Randy, the Hollywood "punk" she falls for (not that he's a terribly confrontational or destructive punk; he's the sort of bad boy who, minus the leather jacket and plus a comb, would be totally acceptable). There's a few winking references to Romeo & Juliet here and there, but part of what works is that despite being complete opposites, both have a great everyman quality to them. They both do heartfelt and funny equally well - Cage's reactions as he hides in a shower while all manner of things go down in the bathroom are a special highlight.

(Another great thing about that scene - the producers of this movie had a mandated minimum number of topless scenes much like their descendants enforce a cap on f-bombs, and yet director Martha Coolidge makes it feel casual and realistic instead of forced.)

The cast is also surprisingly deep. Julie's three gal-pals are individually interesting, even the one that mainly exists to sleep with her boyfriend, whom Michael Bowen makes a bigger jackass for how effortlessly it seems to come. Her hippie parents are fun. Cameron Dye, as Randy's wingman, is underused but pretty good himself. Writers Wayne Crawford and Andrew Lane make subplots that could feel like mere digressions work.

And, yes, the movie is dated - wonderfully so. It's easy to laugh at the girls' San Fernando Valley slang (before cringing at how much "like" has infiltrated everybody's speech since), or the early-80s fashions, but it's also actually really cool that these things actually differentiate kids the same age growing up a half-dozen miles apart. The punks stick out at the Valley party, and Randy mocking how Julie speaks puts their different worlds into sharp relief. That sort of distinct regional subculture just doesn't exist today except as caricature or along ethnic lines, and while that's likely an inevitable result of mass media like this here internet, part of it's deliberate, with studios not wanting movies to be strongly tied to a specific time or place.

Valley Girl will have none of that, and that's part of why I love it.

Vampire's Kiss

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 13 June 2012 in the Brattle Theatre (Nicolas Cage: Greatest American Actor, 35mm)

And here is the utterly nuts Nicolas Cage performance we came to the series for. More than anything else in the series thus far, this movie serves as a delivery system for his particular brand of crazy. Cage gives his Peter Loew a downright peculiar accent and an unusual combination as snobbishness and nervous energy. It's not exactly likely that another actor would have made it a nail-biting, dramatic thriller, but how many other guys with his profile would recognize that this movie needs to be deranged?

Not many, I don't think. And it really is exactly what this movie needs; "subtle" or "realistic" would just mean spending a couple of hours in the company of a complete prick. Instead, every moment is one just amazing sequence after another, with Loew never becoming anything close to sympathetic but always at the very least interesting and entertaining just from observation; writer Joseph Minion doesn't need to supply background in order to make it work.

And director Robert Bierman makes this into a pretty entertaining movie around Cage's performance. One thing I really loved is the way that the opening shot (among others) makes Manhattan look like a haunted castle, and not just because he and cinematographer Stefan Czapsky catch it just before gentrification hit; it's a genuinely otherworldly environment.

Makes for a nifty movie.

1 comment:

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