April 18, 2014 by  
Filed under Cody, Reviews

Starring: Nicholas Cage, Tye Sheridan, Gary Poulter
Directed by: David Gordon Green (“Prince Avalanche”)
Written by: Gary Hawkins (debut)

Though plenty of independent filmmakers shake things up with studio films and projects outside of their wheelhouse, few have taken the path of director David Gordon Green. After starting out with hard hitting independent films like “Snow Angels,” Green spent three years exclusively directing broad, studio comedies. Some of his work was well received, like 2008’s “Pineapple Express” and a dozen episodes of the brash HBO series “Eastbound & Down,” while others like “The Sitter” and “Your Highness” were critically panned and box office duds. After getting back to his independent roots with last year’s “Prince Avalanche,” Green continues down the small-scale path with “Joe.”

After bouncing from town to town with his family, Gary (Tye Sheridan) lands in a small Texas town looking for work. When he stumbles across some workers in a forest, Gary gets a job with Joe (Nicholas Cage) and the two quickly form a bond with one another. But when Gary’s alcoholic and abusive father puts Gary and his family in danger, Joe must decide if he should overstep his boundaries and help.

Despite the fact that he is one of the most frequently mocked A-list actors in Hollywood today, Cage is a former Oscar-winner and “Joe” is a reminder of how brilliant he can be. In Cage’s case, less is more, and by keeping things simple and understated, he is able to bring out a well-rounded and complex character. Joe is less of a role model and more of an occasionally belligerent, heavy drinker with a host of bad habits. The fact that Joe still comes across as a warm and caring paternal figure despite these character flaws is a testament to Cage’s performance and character design. Like last year’s “Mud” in which Sheridan held his own alongside a mammoth performance from Matthew McConnaughey, Sheridan never feels out matched in his scenes with Cage. There might be some typecasting issues down the line, but Sheridan is well on his way to being a very strong actor. When put together, especially in a segment of the film where the two go on the lookout for Joe’s dog, the two show dynamic chemistry.

Part of what makes “Joe” such a successful film is the atmosphere that Green is able to capture. Green often makes use of local “non-actors” in his films, which often give his projects a hint of realism. For this film, Green gave the huge role of Gary’s father to a homeless alcoholic man named Gary Poulter. Poulter, who actually passed away shortly after filming ended, gives a performance that is hilarious, extremely frightening and unsettling. It is simply astonishing that not only Poulter was able to pull this off, but that Green was able to coax such a brilliant performance out of a homeless stranger.

Story-wise, the film takes a few dark and heavy turns and certainly doesn’t shy away from displaying violence or grave subject matter. There is nothing glamorous about the world that Green has built, but the circumstances and stakes feel real and legitimate. As previously alluded to, “Joe” completely thrives on character design. Gary, while still being a minor, is a completely perseverant worker stuck in a terrible family situation. Joe, built from the same cloth, is tortured and nowhere near a good influence for Gary. Still, the two are drawn to each other. While many reasons point to this being a troublesome friendship, it is somehow mutually beneficial.

As good as “Joe” is, there are a few issues. The main villain in the film appears sparingly with very little context and mostly only to serve as a foil. There are also a few stretches, segments, and tone shifts in the film that feel haphazardly put together. Regardless “Joe” is a true and earnest film that features a mostly strong, albeit minimalistic script, a heaping handful of very strong performances and serves as a reminder that Cage is still very capable of a powerful performance.

The Croods

March 22, 2013 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Nicholas Cage, Emma Stone, Ryan Reynolds
Directed by: Kirk De Micco (“Space Chimps”) and Chris Sanders (“How to Train Your Dragon”)
Written by: Kirk De Micco (“Space Chimps”) and Chris Sanders (“How to Train Your Dragon”)

They may not be the modern-Stone Age family most are familiar with in the cartoon caveman world, but “The Croods” is just as satisfying as any brontosaurus burger you’re likely to find at a prehistoric drive-thru. Sure, the characterizations can sway into familiar territory, but with some overall rock-solid voice acting and directors/writers Kirk De Micco (“Space Chimps”) and Chris Sanders (“How to Train Your Dragon”) digging deep into their imaginations for some fun storytelling, “The Croods” is a family-friendly winner in any era.

While the title of the film isn’t a great way to introduce us to the family (they might as well have called them The Uncooths or The Roughinskys), “The Croods” makes up for it in entertaining albeit recognizable characters. Grug (Nicholas Cage) is the overly-protective patriarch of the family, who uses fear-mongering to get his family to always stay safe in the confines of their cave. Monstrous cat-like creatures roam the terrain, after all. His rebellious teenage daughter Eep (Emma Stone), however, is curious to know what she is missing in a world so full of wonder (“Little Mermaid” anyone?). Rounding out the family tree is Eep’s mother Ugga (Catherine Keener), the logical thinker of the family who understands where her daughter is coming from; Eep’s dopey brother Thunk (Clark Duke), who is basically Chris Griffin (“Family Guy”) in woolly mammoth clothing; Gran (Cloris Leachman), who technically isn’t a Crood since she’s Grugs’s mother-in-law, but still delivers some old-lady laughs; and Sandy (Randy Thom), a toddler that acts more like a Gremlin than baby.

When the family meet Guy (Ryan Reynolds), a more civilized version their Neanderthal selves, Ugg is skeptical of all the fancy inventions he introduces them to like fire and shoes. Driven from their home after a natural disaster, the Croods are forced to journey through strange lands to find a new place to inhabit. During their barefoot road trip, the family learns that experiencing new things is all part of life and doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to be eaten whole by a Sabre-Toothed Tiger.

It’s a wonderful message for kids and stops short before rubbing their faces in it. The colorful and incredibly striking animation and funny sight gags and slapstick are what will keep children under the age of eight the most fascinated anyway. Parents, too, shouldn’t find themselves bored with a collection of exotic animals and settings. The creativity makes the Croods’ cave-hunting all the more exciting. The deeper family story also never slow the narrative down in any way. In fact, “The Croods” says a lot more about the father/daughter relationship than Pixar’s “Brave” said about mothers and daughters last year.

Like in some animated films, there is a scene-stealing secondary character like the Minions in “Despicable Me” or the sly penguins in the “Madagascar” franchise. So take heed parents because Belt, Guy’s loveable sloth who he keeps around his waist, will keep everyone laughing with his cliffhanger-inspired crooning. If you’re lucky, the plush version (and not the stinky alive version) will be on your kids’ Christmas lists this year.

Season of the Witch

January 12, 2011 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Nicholas Cage, Ron Perlman, Claire Foy
Directed by: Dominic Sena (“Gone in Sixty Seconds”)
Written by: Bragi F. Schut (debut)

In all fairness, when Entertainment Weekly film critic Owen Gleiberman called out Nicolas Cage back in early 2009 and pleaded with him in his article “Nicolas Cage: Artist or hack? The choice is his” to stop pursuing “cheesy paycheck films,” a much-needed substantial Cage performance as a coked-up cop in “Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans” was still six months from a festival premiere.

While Cage hallucinating iguanas in the Big Easy wasn’t as highly regarded as his Oscar-worthy role in 1995’s “Leaving Las Vegas,” it was proof the man could still act. Somewhere beyond career choices like “Bangkok Dangerous” and “Next,” Cage still had a steady pulse. Now, with the medieval fantasy “Season of the Witch,” the first official movie of 2011, he’s flatlined again.

In “Witch,” Cage plays Behmen, a 14th-century knight fighting during the Crusades who is forced to escort a woman the Catholic Church believes to be a plague-causing witch to an abbey where she can be destroyed with a powerful book of scriptures. Coming along for the journey is Behmen’s fellow swordsman Felson (Perlman), along with a panicky priest, a brave altar boy, and a frumpy guide. We’re not asking for “The Canterbury Tales” here, but the collection of flimsy characters in “Witch” would have sent Chaucer straight to the gallows.

Sidestepping any real Holy War history, director Dominic Sena (“Gone in Sixty Seconds”) and first-time screenwriter Bragi F. Schut take a broader approach to the religious themes of the period in favor of more uninspired supernatural mumbo jumbo. Even the Man vs. God tirades it produces are as appealing as a plateful of greasy fried sheep’s feet.

The anticlimactic scenes all lead up to an inevitable CGI-heavy showdown: Good vs. Evil, featuring a clan of grotesque zombie monks and a winged demon as realistic as the one Eddie Murphy jacks up in “The Golden Child.”

It used to be that discerning audiences were the only ones disinterested in a Cage blockbuster. Now, it seems, he is too, and he is easy to criticize when he phones it in like this. From his monotonous line-delivery to his frazzled eyes, his overall aloof attitude has grown tiresome.

Artist or hack? Cage has definitely made his choice — at least for this round.

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice

July 16, 2010 by  
Filed under Reviews

NOTE: This movie review was written by film critic apprentice Cody Villafana, who won the Film Critic Apprentice-for-a-Day contest last week.

Starring: Nicholas Cage, Jay Baruchel, Alfred Molina
Directed by: John Turteltaub (“National Treasure: Book of Secrets”)
Written by: Lawrence Konner (“Flicka”), Mark Rosenthal (“Flicka”), Matt Lopez (“Bedtime Stories”)

In an attempt to tap into the well-established “Harry Potter” market, Disney has unearthed a 200-year-old story most recently manifested in their 1940 classic film “Fantasia” and created a film that will likely make people pine for the cartoon’s timeless simplicity. Producer Jerry Bruckheimer and company have taken the famous mopping scene from “Fantasia” and expanded and re-imagined the story to create a film that taps into the world of magic and sorcery. Although it provides some entertainment through special effects, ”The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” is a mostly unbalanced film that fails to conjure up anything substantial in the way of story, plot, or memorable moments.

“The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” opens with a quick trip back into history recapping the story of Merlin and his three apprentices. One of Merlin’s apprentices, Maxim Horvath (Alfred Molina) turns against Merlin and joins forces with the evil sorceress Morgana before eventually being captured in a nesting doll-type object called a grimhold. As Merlin is dying, he gives another one of his apprentices, Balthazar Blake (Nicolas Cage) a ring with a dragon on it that will one day determine who will succeed Merlin.

The audience then skips to the year 2000, where young Dave Stutler (played in kid form by Dave Cherry) stumbles into what appears to be an antique store where he finds the enigmatic Balthazar. Balthazar quickly notices something about Dave that prompts him to grab the dragon ring, which perfectly grips and attaches to Dave’s finger. While wandering around the store, Dave accidentally releases the evil Horvath, leading to an extended battle which leaves Horvath and Balthazar trapped inside a vase. Dave throws away the grimhold and is met by his teacher, who finds only Dave and an empty antique store.

In a final jump to present-day New York City, the audience finds Dave (Jay Baruchel), the now 20-year-old self-proclaimed physics nerd, offering help to Becky (Teresa Palmer), his elementary school crush, in their physics class. Meanwhile, Horvath and Balthazar reappear from the vase, now just an artifact in an old couple’s home. Horvath immediately visits Dave in search of the grimhold. Balthazar is able to appear to save Dave in the nick of time, and recruits Dave to help him find the grimhold. Dave and Balthazar then engage in a series of battles with Horvath, while Balthazar uses every opportunity to train Dave to be the sorcerer he is destined to become – the only one who can defeat Morgana, should she be released.

The film suffers from uninspiring performances from most of its leads. Jay Baruchel fails to display the charm he showed in “She’s Out of My League” and turns in an unconvincing performance as a newly post-teenage physics nerd. Nicolas Cage sleepwalks through his role as the wise, but slightly neurotic Balthazar and adds virtually nothing but a name to plaster on a movie poster to help bring in bigger box office numbers. Alfred Molina gives the best performance of the leads in his role as the evil Horvath. It is a performance that is evil enough to make him a convincing villain, however, fans of Molina’s will surely recognize this is not his best work.

One of the major downfalls of this film is its over-reliance on special effects. While the first couple of battles provide amusing effects as the Sorcerers throw plasma balls and move objects with the wave of a hand, the concept begins to repeat itself and wear thin. The entire movie presents a repeating cat and mouse game between Horvath and the duo of Balthazar and Dave and by the third time we see characters hurling transforming objects at one another, the effects have lost their luster.

The large majority of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice takes place in a physics lab and focuses on Balthazar’s efforts to train Dave and turn him into a true sorcerer. This leaves almost no room to grow for any of the relationships beyond that of Dave and Balthazar. The relationship between Dave and Becky isn’t given enough time to develop, lacks believability and fails to evoke any sort of emotional response from the viewer.

Perhaps the most criminal of cinematic offenses comes in the movie’s final act, which is the end battle that the entire film leads towards. In a this final sequence Dave suddenly does things that he wasn’t capable of five minutes prior, other characters perform acts that are either not completely shown on screen or are not explained. The sequence becomes so convoluted that it reiterates the banality and lack of substance of the film and once again leaves the viewer’s enjoyment at the mercy of the special effects.

Serving as a Sunday afternoon time passer at best, “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” isn’t entertaining enough to cover up its plethora of plot holes, lack of character development and dull story line.

The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call – New Orleans

January 22, 2010 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Nicholas Cage, Eva Mendes, Alvin “Xzibit” Joiner
Directed by: Werner Herzog (“Rescue Dawn”)
Written by: William M. Finkelstein (debut)
It’s much easier to take an actor like Nicolas Cage seriously when he’s not making movies just for the paycheck. While many in Hollywood are certainly guilty of being hypnotized by the mighty dollar, there’s something about Cage doing it that makes it even more offensive. Maybe it’s because when he stars in films like “Bangkok Dangerous,” “Knowing” or “The Wicker Man” it’s evident that he’s simply going through the motions and hoping his star power will be enough to make the project watchable. Or maybe it’s because when Cage is truly at the top of his game (“Raising Arizona,” “Leaving Las Vegas,” “Adaptation”) it’s so hard not to be mesmerized by his on-screen presence you wish it wasn’t such a rarity.

With that said, Cage’s new film “The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call – New Orleans” is fortunately another of those diamonds in the rough. A bizarrely interesting film by director Werner Herzog (“Rescue Dawn”), “Lieutenant” is the exact role Cage needed to get out of his three-year slump. It’s a manic character study brimming with high-energy dialogue and sarcasm perfect for Cage’s exaggerated tendencies.

In “Lieutenant,” which is very loosely based on the 1992 film of the same name (sans subtitle), Cage takes on the role of Terence McDonagh, a drug-addicted police detective investigating the murders of a Senegalese family living in post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans. Hopped up on pain killers and cocaine, Terence blazes through Sin City using his badge to get whatever he wants. Whether it’s cutting in line at the pharmacy or having sex with young women he pulls over for traffic infractions, the lieutenant has a nasty streak.

Despite his moments of lunacy, there is some goodness in Terence that he just can’t seem to exude any which way but raw. When he befriends a group of drug dealers lead by kingpin Big Fate (Alvin “Xzibit” Joiner), who may be linked to the brutal killings, it’s really not certain whether Terence is actually infiltrating the gang to solve the crime or to get a fix. His relationship with prostitute Frankie Donnenfeld (Eva Mendes) doesn’t help clean up his image either.

“The Bad Lieutenant” is a deranged and humorous film and Herzog knows how to get the best from his leading man. While we watch Terrance snort, fidget and space out and see him hallucinate iguanas and self-destruct, it’s evident that there is a method to all of Cage’s madness. In “Lieutenant,” he pushes his limits and the results are quite impressive in a kind of freakish way.