Croods, The (2013)
★★★ / ★★★★
The Croods is a family of survivors. As a unit, they have managed to avoid getting trampled on, eaten, poisoned, or falling to their deaths. Having an intact family is a great feat considering what had happened to their previous cavemen neighbors.
However, times are changing. Tectonic plates are on the move yet the patriarch, Grug (voiced by Nicolas Cage), insists that they continue hiding in a cave. After all, staying away from danger has worked in the past. But when Grug’s curious daughter, Eep (Emma Stone), meets Guy (Ryan Reynolds), a young man who has advance knowledge, like how to make fire, her new friend just might be the key to prevent their extinction.
“The Croods,” directed and based on the screenplay by Kirk De Micco and Chris Sanders, surprised me because although I expected to be entertained, I did not anticipate to be moved. An early scene shows how the family hunts for food through an energetic and beautifully animated chase sequence involving an egg. When such an approach is utilized, something in the back of my brain begins to have a sneaky suspicion that the material starts on a high note because once the dust settles, the screenplay will drag. This is a happy exception.
It has a bona fide sense of humor—appropriate for children, adults, and kid-at-heart. A few of the jokes might sound a bit corny in retrospect but they do not upon delivery. But one of the main reasons why it can be enjoyed on another layer is because we get a sense of what it is like for the Croods to be a family. They do not always get along, especially the father and daughter, because, though some of them may not be aware of it, their life is slowly rotting from the inside out due to a constant fear of getting hurt or something not going exactly as planned.
Grug’s motto is “Never not be afraid.” One of the best scenes involves Grug being put into a situation where he has no choice but to move forward and take a risk. The writer-directors do a good job just showing us an image of his helplessness. There is no need to use words because we see that he is crippled by a fear he—for the most part—has created for himself. With most animated movies, filmmakers tend to think it is necessary to explain the significance of the scene that just came before. I appreciated that this one avoids that cliché.
As previously mentioned, the animation has a pleasing aesthetic. Because it has so much going on at once, it makes the eyes dance. Admittedly, I have a weakness for strange-looking creatures—animated or otherwise. Most of the creatures found here are not based on actual extinct living things but I enjoyed admiring them nonetheless. One cannot help but notice, for example, the texture of a feline’s fur, how a carnivorous flower undulates in a non-threatening manner just before the kill, or the manner by which an animal is at times given human-like emotions or responses through their eyes.
“The Croods” provides an alternative. Instead of being about the importance of friendship or being true to ourselves, it turns its attention on why it is necessary that we take a risk sometimes so that we can get somewhere we want to be—and hopefully one that is worth it. Though it does not delve too deeply within that subject matter, at least it traverses a less traveled avenue.
★★★ / ★★★★
Surrealistic revenge thriller “Mandy,” written and directed by Panos Cosmatos, is to me, both a coal and a diamond in that, in a sense, it is equally student film and metal rock—bizarre and frustrating but cathartic and oddly compelling. After the final frame, I felt as though it is the movie that the writer-director wished to make and, although a trial to sit through at times, I cannot help but respect the final product. This is a project that will not appeal to most audiences, especially the modern variety, and it is self-aware that it isn’t for them. More filmmakers should follow suit.
The presentation is forceful and off-putting. For instance, it has the tendency to employ extreme coloring—particularly shades of red—to the point where the viewer is forced to wonder whether we are peering into a nightmare or hallucination. Wholly appropriate because, in a way, the story is supposed to embody a feeling of one descending into the depths of hell as the main character attempts to complete his gory vengeance, the wild use of color palettes eventually fuses into the marrow of storytelling. I found it surprising that the approach somehow manages to complement the cartoonish violence—sometimes shocking, occasionally funny—that is heavily influenced by the more unpleasant but endearing ‘80s sci-fi flicks.
It has been years since I have seen Nicolas Cage utilize his crazy facial expressions in an effective film. In the past five to ten years, I have preferred to watch him in quiet dramas where his emotions are controlled and captivating. Here, the veteran actor is allowed to run wild and just about every second of his performance works. He makes us believe that his character, Red, is so willing get even with his wife’s killers (led by the cult leader Jeremiah Sand played by Linus Roache) that his own life is of no value. Red died in that same fire that consumed his wife (Andrea Riseborough).
So many independent movies use drug-induced images to shove audiences into particular mindsets, especially when the screenplay is so limited, like lacking the ear for dialogue or the means to unspool more demanding action sequences. Cosmatos takes it a step further by subjecting us into experiencing specific feelings. When a character is afraid, for instance, images are hallucinatory but the editing is quite fractured. When someone dreams, we observe wordless animation. When someone’s rage takes over, these feverish images fade away. Tension builds just as quickly as embellishments fade way. Clearly, careful thought is put into how various styles ought be used to create a specific experience that makes sense.
I am more than willing to call bad art as trash, but “Mandy,” even though it can be a challenge to sit through at times due to its languid and uneven pacing, does not belong under such category. It works for the most part because there is conviction behind the strange images and circumstances, supported by a solid lead performance. In the middle of it, I wondered about Cosmatos’ versatility as writer-director. It would be interesting to see what kind of movie he would make should he be forced to abstain from psychedelic images to support his storytelling. I think he has it in him to create, for instance, a straight-faced drama; the decorations, like the visual kind, simply must be channeled in a different way. He’s one to keep an eye out for.
Mom and Dad (2017)
★ / ★★★★
Brian Taylor’s would-be black comedy “Mom and Dad” inspires the viewer to walk away in the middle of it and never return. It is unfunny, not even mildly amusing, lacking the creativity and willingness to move the plot toward interesting directions, and it fails to function as a metaphor or an allegory of the complex relationship between parent and child, of one generation to another. All it provides is a mishmash of violent scenes that do not build up to anything substantial. It is one of the laziest films I’ve come across in a while.
It appears to be just another day in the suburbs as adults go to work and children go to school. As the day goes on, however, more and more parents are showing up to pick up their kids. While it is pragmatic to attribute the surge of panic to the violent goings-on shown by the news, it is revealed eventually that these parents intend to murder their own offsprings. The trigger appears to be a static noise emitted from television, cell phones, and various electronics. But there is no exact cause or reason behind the occurrence.
While the premise is curious, the screenplay never bothers to go beyond the expected elements of a horror template. Dark comedies require not only intelligence but an ingenuity designed to critique a subject behind images shown on screen; it must be willing to provide details so that the viewer comes to understand both what is at stake and why the story must be told in a particular way. Here, however, one gets the impression that the writer-director’s approach is to take a premise of a horror film, remove the juicy details of world-building and insightful character development, and pass it off as dark comedy. It is a massive miscalculation because the sub-genre almost never works as a skeletal piece.
Action sequences command no tension. Nicolas Cage and Selma Blair play the homicidal parents, but it appears they are hired simply to deliver crazy faces and intense yelling. When their characters chase the children (Anne Winters, Zackary Arthur) in and around the house, the camera is almost always placed toward the audience and so it is a challenge to appreciate, for example, the decreasing distance between predator and prey. Even the most basic horror pictures are aware that one ought to place the camera from a higher angle. A bit of distance from the central action allows us hold our breath in anticipation.
In addition, these chases are interrupted by pesky flashbacks that show either parent as a teenager or a parent sharing an intimate family moment with Carly or Josh. When not syrupy, they are laughably bad; in either case, the flashback interrupts the flow of an action scene. It is a technique so often used as a crutch to plug in the holes of a sinking screenplay. This observation is most applicable in this instance.
There is not one genuine human moment or interaction to be had in this most agonizingly dull film. It is exponentially more entertaining to sit through ninety minutes of Wile E. Coyote attempting to outsmart the Road Runner because the classic cartoon has more funny and surprising bits in thirty seconds than this movie has in its entire duration. If I were dared to choose between sitting through “Mom and Dad” again or breaking one of my fingers using a hammer, I would give the latter serious consideration.
Peggy Sue Got Married (1986)
★★★ / ★★★★
It is Buchanan High School’s twenty-fifth reunion and Peggy Sue (Kathleen Turner) requires convincing to attend. Having just split with her husband, Charlie (Nicolas Cage), she fears that he, too, will be there, since they were high school sweethearts, and her night will be ruined. Upon the insistence of her daughter (Helen Hunt), Peggy Sue decides to go eventually. After catching up with some friends and acquaintances, she is crowned the queen. Once she gets on stage, however, her vision dims and her body collapses. When she wakes, she finds herself in a blood drive of her high school gymnasium: somehow she managed to travel to the past.
“Peggy Sue Got Married,” written by Jerry Leichtling and Arlene Sarner, is the ultimate wish fulfillment: a person going back to the past and having another chance to alter the course of her life given the fact that she retains the knowledge of the decisions that turned her life for the worse. The plot, though largely a fantasy which can be easily dismissed as silly, is executed with such elegance and eye for detail that we cannot help but buy into the reality of what we are seeing.
The most beautiful thing about the picture is that it creates a sense of wonder and feelings of discovery without relying on special or visual effects. When Peggy Sue, as a sixteen-year-old, gets a second chance to visit her old house and see the people who have long been gone, I could not helped but feel touched. I started to think that one day I will have to deal with the fact that my parents will no longer be there for support and the close friends I have come to know may be reduced to mere acquaintances. Maybe I will even look at the home I live in now—but only from the outside because another family will have moved in.
As Peggy Sue appreciates the house and people she thought she would never see again, the camera is patient but energetic. We are welcomed to feel the magic she is experiencing. Turner succeeds in being the conduit between what is going on and relating her character’s emotions to the audience. She does an amazing job in communicating so much with so little. For instance, the manner in which her fingers glide along a particular object or the way she tilts her head just so as to suggest that something new has captured her attention and she yearns to interact with it.
Even though we know that the actors playing seventeen- or eighteen-year-olds are past twenty or twenty-five, it does not take away what is there to be enjoyed. The script has an ear for dialogue so the verbal exchanges do not sound phony or trying too hard to establish a 1960 milieu. Although the time travel element drives the plot forward, the focus is on the relationships and Peggy Sue attempting to determine what went wrong and make the appropriate changes that she thinks she needs to make so she can live a life with less pain.
There is something to like about all of the characters. This is note-worthy because in a lot of movies that take place in a high school, someone has to be a villain. In here, even Charlie, the guy that cheated on Peggy Sue when they were married, is given the opportunity to be understood. We discover why the protagonist has fallen in love with him and also why it is hard for her get over him. Their love for one another is given complexity. Peggy Sue’s relationship, whether it be a friendship or a fling with other guys (Kevin J. O’Connor, Barry Miller) is given genuine comedy and drama, too.
Directed by Francis Ford Coppola, “Peggy Sue Got Married” poses some questions worth thinking about underneath its initially fluffy exterior. It does not run out of wit, warmth, and intelligence—yes, even cheese—which makes it more than a nostalgia trip: it is a delight.
★★ / ★★★★
Under the leadership of FBI Special Agent Sean Archer (John Travolta), the infamous terrorist named Castor Troy (Nicolas Cage) is finally captured. The problem is, word has it that there is a bomb in Los Angeles and it will go off in a few days. Castor has fallen into a coma and his brother, Pollux (Alessandro Nivola), is not cooperating with the authorities. Time is of the essence and Archer is informed that the government has created a new technology that allows for a perfect face transplant.
The plan: Archer will borrow Troy’s face and he will then try to coax information out of Pollux—the exact location of the bomb and when it will go off exactly. The problem: After the complex surgery, Troy, sporting Archer’s face, wakes up from his coma, kills everyone with the knowledge of the operation, and assumes the FBI agent’s identity.
“Face/Off,” written by Mike Werb and Michael Colleary, is an over-the-top action film that knows how silly it is and so it is willing to take many risks. It has a highly enjoyable first half, especially in how the pieces are put into place prior to the face transplant, but it is eventually reduced to shoot-‘em-up razzle-dazzle with not much ingenuity in its bones.
Casting Travolta and Cage is smart, but having them play against-type eventually is a stroke of genius. In the beginning, Cage plays the villain with such an electric intensity at times it feels as though we are watching a super villain in a superhero picture. Travolta, on the other hand, plays a good guy at first but he employs enough quirks as not make the character boring. Their charisma never wavers and that is why it is almost always a joy to watch them on screen together especially when they are trading barbs.
Less effective are the action scenes—which is a problem because this is an action picture. Although the editing is proficient and the pacing of each sequence is just right, having the characters shoot guns amidst random explosions becomes a trick that gets old real fast. Because Archer and Troy have such hatred toward one another, it is not unfair to expect for them to engage in hand-to-hand combat. We do get one toward the end but it is far from choreographed in a cathartic and creative way.
Clocking in at two hours and ten minutes, the movie is too long. There are a lot of bits showing Troy, sporting Archer’s face, trying to assume a normal family life and Archer, with Troy’s face, spending time with known criminals, but the jokes are evanescent at best. Instead, these humor-driven scenes take away the suspense and intrigue of two people trying to adapt to their new identities.
Directed by John Woo, “Face/Off” is need of toning up in terms of which scenes are most effective in order to get the message across. The best action movies are so direct, they end up forcing the audience to catch up to whatever is going on. Here, one can step away for a few minutes right after an action scene wraps up and not much is missed.
★★★★ / ★★★★
Every once in a while a movie comes along and manages to hit all the right notes without ever hitting a wrong one. One waits for the film to stumble somehow—whether it be a performer stepping outside of his character for less than a second or a shot that lingers for a beat too long—but it never does. David Gordon Green’s “Joe” is that kind of film.
Based on the novel by Larry Brown, the premise sounds like a cliché: a teenager who is abused at home finds a role model in an ex-con. But the keen screenplay by Gary Hawkins eradicates the expected trappings by focusing on the specificities of the characters. Because we are emotionally invested in who they are, what they have to say, and what they will do next, we are left unguarded when it comes to just about every turn of event. It is a rural drama with a powerful gravitational force and once one is caught up in it, the claws of suspense is deeply embedded in our spines.
It is unflinching in its violence. We see a grown man punching a kid in the face, a skull being struck repeatedly using a rusty tool until the head is concave, people being shot from afar and point-blank. Violence becomes another character in the picture. It makes the case that everyone is capable of thinking it and thereby executing it. At one point, the title character says, “I know what keeps me alive is restraint. It keeps me out of jail. Keeps me from hurting people.”
Nicolas Cage plays Joe with an intensity of a grenade moments from going off. Beneath that hardworking, seemingly calm exterior is a man capable of so much rage. Most interesting is that he is aware he is not a good person when he sees red. The picture spends a good amount of time during the first act showing how people work with their hands. It is like attempting to distract a shark from attacking. It is only a matter of time until the distraction is unable to mask the scent of blood. It has been years since I have seen Cage being so effective in a role. I respected his character’s restraint and yet I feared his inevitable meltdown.
Although not as dynamic as Cage, Tye Sheridan is more than capable of holding his own against the veteran performer. He is required to summon not just anger for Gary being abused by his father (Gary Poulter—a real-life homeless man who passed away shortly after the film has wrapped—delivering a performance, though I am not sure if that is right word, that I will remember for a long time) but also a sense of possibly being permanently wounded, emotionally and psychologically, for living in such a destructive household for so long. Sheridan and Poulter’s scenes are difficult to watch because of the abuse and yet they are also the highlights of the picture because we convince ourselves we will not flinch once the violence occurs. It is a challenge not to be caught off-guard every time.
The picture is beautifully and astutely shot, very raw in its depiction of destitution. For instance, in scenes that take place in Gary’s home, especially at night, notice that there is no electricity. The shelves are empty. There are junk on the floor. Each member of the family’s clothes appear unwashed. Look at their unkempt hair. Feel the fear in their eyes as the father enters the room. I was amazed that I was able to absorb these things despite near darkness. Lesser films would have had dim lights or something of that sort just so we would notice how dirty everything was. I was impressed by its courage to show things as they would look like in real life.
“Joe” is moving but never sentimental, tough but never gratuitous. There is a vulnerability here that many pictures of its type attempt to reach but never do. Though the subject matter is dark and uncompromising, I relished every single beautiful, scary, heartbreaking, hopeful moment in it.
Red Rock West (1993)
★★★ / ★★★★
Michael (Nicolas Cage) has driven all the way from Texas to Wyoming because a friend (Craig Reay) has promised that there is a construction job waiting for him. If there is anything we learn about Michael in under five minutes, it is his seemingly unwavering honesty. First, while filling out a job application, a mere formality, he mentions his bad leg. This inevitably costs him the job. Second, when there is no one minding the desk at a gas station, leaving the cash register wide open, although he is very short on cash, he does not purloin the money like a petty criminal.
However, when Wayne (J.T. Walsh), a pub owner, has mistaken Michael for “Lyle from Dallas” and mentions a vague contract job, our protagonist goes along for a ride. After all, how dangerous can a pub owner be? He is informed that his assignment involves killing Wayne’s wife, Suzanne (Lara Flynn Boyle), because she has been unfaithful. Suddenly, Michael is involved—whether he wants to be or not.
Written by John Dahl and Rick Dahl, “Red Rock West” begins like a wild wire, its damaged end emitting blinding and fatal sparks at irregular intervals. It embraces a certain level of excitement in terms of how one lie can make a man’s life tortuously complicated. Cage’s character is an apotheosis of a man constantly pushed toward the edge. When he is not struggling for money, he is fighting for his life. His weary voice serves as a great contrast to his brisk responses when dangerous situations face him.
I admired the film’s stylish simplicity. It works as a western noir in that the screenplay uses the environment, from the sun-soaked desert roads, old men wearing tough leather boots, to dilapidated abandoned buildings, as a backdrop for double- and triple-crosses. Because so many things are happening at the same time, at times I was blinded by some of the characters’ true motivations. I guess, in a way, I wanted to trust some of them so I could figure out the true villain, or villains, in the story.
Without a doubt, the real Lyle from Dallas (Dennis Hopper) is not the one to root for. He works for no one but himself. If he detects the scent of money, he follows its trail like a detection dog. While Fake Lyle expresses his emotions inward, Real Lyle embodies the opposite. Neither are invincible. Hero or villain, both are capable of being hurt, knocked down, and knocked out.
When the two scuffle, the lack of a resounding score is noticeable. Instead, the ominous beats present throughout the rest of the picture blanket the fight. I found it to be eerily effective because not only does it not glorify violence, it gives the audience the impression that things can go very wrong at any second. That bad leg is just too much of a liability.
“Red Rock West,” directed by John Dahl, knows how to build suspense without losing track of what makes each character tick. Rarely do I encounter a protagonist where I would constantly wish for him to do the wrong thing so he can finally have a chance to extricate himself from several complicated situations. The fact that he does not, unless absolutely necessary, makes us wish harder that he will have a happy ending.
Drive Angry (2011)
★ / ★★★★
Milton (Nicolas Cage) breaks out of Hell to return to the land of the living in order to rescue his granddaughter, an infant, from being sacrificed by a religious cult leader, Jonah King (Billy Burke), the very same man who murdered Milton’s daughter because she wanted to resign from the cult. While sipping black coffee at a diner, Milton takes notice of a kind but tough waitress, Piper (Amber Heard). He asks her to give him a ride and she decides to help. Before she knew it, she is an integral part of Milton’s mission to hunt down the zealots. Meanwhile, The Accountant (William Fichtner), Satan’s right-hand man, is assigned to bring the escapee back to where he belongs.
Written by Todd Farmer and Patrick Lussier, “Drive Angry” is not without ambition but it is so sloppily put together, there is barely a glimpse of a story we can invest in. Its many attempts to exude excitement comes in a form as basic as shooting and blowing things up.
Milton is supposed to be a grandfather on a bloody rampage and will do absolutely anything to save the baby. His mission might not have been so unbelievable if he isn’t so easily distracted, especially by the opposite sex. For someone who has literally escaped Hell, his weakness is women? Really? When a blonde waitress at a bar makes passes at him, the very next scene shows them having sex. As Jonah’s henchmen come barging in like wild animals, Milton grabs his gun with one hand and uses the other to keep the woman attached to him until all the assailants are dead and bloody.
But it does not stop there. The whole thing is shown in painful slow motion. Since we can see where the attackers are located prior to raising their weapons, tension is sucked out of the scene. It looks pretty, I suppose, but only for about five seconds. It glorifies violence by making it look like an elegant dance. As many of us should know, violence is anything but.
It leaves a confusing message. The woman releases moans of pleasure during the shootout yet she is left traumatized after the fact. If the writers had managed to put the same amount of thought in the implications as much as the visuals, they might have had a film worth cooking and it might not have been insulting. Other scenes run similar to this, only increasingly less interesting due to diminishing returns.
And then there is the question involving Milton’s state of being human. Yes, he is unable to die, but what is so special about him that he is one of the very few to have escaped from the land of the dead? Not enough backstory is given to us and Cage’s somewhat relaxed–some might say narcotic–performance does not help. Following Milton on his journey is like watching a robot doing the same tricks over and over again. For someone who has broken out of Hell, he sure does get boring fast.
“Drive Angry,” directed by Patrick Lussier,” tries to be cheeky in order to have variations in tone between action sequences, but it fails to work because every event feels contrived. Instead, it comes off so desperate, it forces some characters to actually wink at the audiences before doing something naughty, like they need our approval.
★★★ / ★★★★
Loretta (Cher) was married for two years until her husband passed away. Since then, she came to believe that she was unlucky and had stayed away from potential bachelors. But when Johnny (Danny Aiello) suddenly proposed to her in a restaurant, she was intent on doing everything the traditional way, for instance, the man must kneel before she could accept his proposal, hoping that her luck would turn around. She accepted but they couldn’t get married just yet because Johnny had to go to Sicily to visit his terminally sick mother. Meanwhile, Johnny asked Loretta to contact his brother, Ronny (Nicolas Cage), and invite him to their wedding. The problem was Ronny and Loretta became very attracted to one another and the two felt the need to keep it a secret. Written by John Patrick Shanley and directed by Norman Jewison, “Moonstruck” was an intelligent romantic comedy about Italian-American characters and what love and being in love meant to them. The scenes were relatively simple but the underlying emotions were complex. Take the dinner scene between Loretta’s mother (Olympia Dukakis) and a professor (John Mahoney) who dated his students. Despite their age difference, I expected them to get involved emotionally. However, instead of taking the easy route, the picture allowed the two characters to speak about their lives. By taking the time to allow the characters to interact in a meaningful way instead of resulting to cheap and easy gags, we considered questions that we otherwise wouldn’t have by just looking at them. Loretta’s mother became involved in her own questions about what it meant to be a wife versus a woman while the professor discussed his sadness because he no longer felt passionate about his work. Although they were concerned about very different things, they occupied the same space. Being in front of one another, despite being strangers, was enough for them to engage in a real and meaningful conversation. I found them relatable because at times it’s just easier to talk about very personal things to someone I don’t really know. There’s a reassuring feeling in the transient bond between us and a stranger perhaps because we feel like we’re not alone with our problems. While the story was about Loretta and Ronny in its core, I loved that the supporting characters had particular importance instead of just playthings that conveniently entered and exited the frame. The elderly characters with their wisdom, sometimes lack thereof, served to highlight the magic between what Loretta and Ronny did not yet know they had. Cher played her fiercely independent character with bravado yet she was as effective in showing Loretta’s weaknesses. Cage played Ronny with charm combined with a dangerous edge. I never would have guessed he loved the opera. Cher and Cage’s intense chemistry complemented the wonderful and crackling script. “Moonstruck” proudly wore its positive outlook on love, courtship, and marriage. I only wish it acknowledged those who will not be lucky enough to find their one.
Leaving Las Vegas (1995)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Ben (Nicolas Cage) was an alcoholic intent on traversing a destructive path. His wife and child left him and he was recently fired from his job so he decided to go to Las Vegas to drink himself to death. Sera (Elisabeth Shue) was a prostitute and Yuri (Julian Sands) was her pimp. When she didn’t make enough money for a night, he took pleasure in beating her. She didn’t seem to mind. For her, being hit was a better feeling than being lonely. When Ben hired Sera, it wasn’t a regular night on the job. He just wanted someone to talk to and listen to his sometimes incomprehensible words. In just one night, she seemed to have fallen for her client. Based on a novel by John O’Brien and directed by Mike Figgis, it’s easy to classify “Leaving Las Vegas” as a romance film, but I didn’t see it from that perspective. In my opinion, for there to be romance, two people had to be relatively functional and emotionally available. Ben was far from functional and he was definitely not emotionally available. I wasn’t convinced that we knew his true self. In each scene, he was either drunk with confidence or he was going through ugly withdrawals. Cage’s performance was very impressive because he had control of such an uncontrollable character. He had an organic way in terms of shifting from one intense emotion to another without ignoring the subtleties requisite to make us believe that we were still watching a person worth saving even though the beast inside him had almost completely taken over. For instance, while having dinner, Sera suggested that Ben go see a doctor. With bulging eyes, he said he wasn’t going to see any doctor with such authority in his voice, but at the same time I felt that the longer I looked in those eyes, there was nobody there. I cared for Ben but there was something about that moment that scared me. It reminded me of those times when I was about four and my father, who drank alcohol profusely at the time, would return home and act like a damn fool in the living room and my mom and I stayed out of his way. The fear I felt as I looked in Cage’s eyes was similar to the fear I felt when my father’s monster would throw furniture around the house. Was there love between Ben and Sera? I thought so. But I wasn’t convinced Ben and Sera were really in love with one another. Ben depended on alcohol and Sera depended on the feeling of having someone there. They enabled each other’s disease. One of the most beautiful things about “Leaving Las Vegas” was love, like addiction, encompassed many forms. Depending on our experiences, we were able to take a unique magnifying glass and interpret why certain scenes unfolded the way they did. But one thing was certain. It was accurate in portraying alcoholism: the temporary and fleeting illusions of joy, the ticks when the mind was hungry for alcohol, the self-loathing because loved ones left, and the crippling depression. Those who’ve never had experience with an alcoholic should see this film. It was scary in its realism.
★★ / ★★★★
When their daughter, Avery (Liana Liberato), snuck out to attend a posh teen party, Sarah (Nicole Kidman) and Kyle’s (Nicolas Cage) home was invaded by four thugs (Cam Gigandet, Ben Mendelsohn, Dash Mihok, Jordana Spiro). They knew Kyle’s business involved selling diamonds and they hoped that by forcing the husband to open a money vault, they would be that much richer by the end of the night. But Kyle wouldn’t open the depository even if his wife’s life was threatened. Written by Karl Gajdusek and directed by Joel Schumacher, “Trespass” could have been a lot of fun if it hadn’t taken itself too seriously. Once Sarah and Kyle were on the floor, screaming, begging, and arguing for their lives, they weren’t given very much to do. With such a high caliber actors, one would think that the filmmakers would take advantage of it, take some risks, even unnecessary ones, and really challenge its audiences in terms of what was normally expected in home invasion movies. Instead, the film was too safe. Aside from the shot when Sarah realized that one of the men wearing masks was someone she knew, there was no other scene that moved me, good or bad. The rest were just there as I passively watched the formula: the hostages waiting for an opportunity to run, finding a chance to get away for a couple of minutes because the thugs ended up on each other’s throats, and eventually getting caught because the backyard was so big, it was like running a marathon from Point A to Point B. Back to square one, nothing changed. To its credit, the formula wasn’t boring, per se. It was repetitive but I wanted the family to find an escape so badly to the point where I didn’t mind. I just wasn’t as involved as I felt I should have been. The characterization was obvious especially concerning the head of the family: Kyle was like a diamond. Despite the heat and pressure applied by the criminals, he just wouldn’t break. But there was nothing else to his character. Aside from Cage doing his crazy yelling in an outstanding (and borderline comical) manner, his character wasn’t very interesting. He was smart and sarcastic but he held so many secrets that, by the end, we ended up not really getting to know him. And then there was the criminals’ laughable decision to bring a druggie, Petal, the only woman in their group, as a helping hand. I thought it was unintentionally funny. She pranced around the house wearing other people’s clothes, admiring shoes, jewelry, purses and taking drugs. When she wasn’t doing the aforementioned activities, she went downstairs to whine about what was taking so long and wanting to slap around Sarah out of jealousy. It was like bringing an already ticking bomb to a supposedly controlled situation. For a group who went out of their way to gather so much information about Kyle and his family, stringing a loose cannon along just didn’t feel right. With all the things that happened, “Trespass” probably would have worked as a farce or a satire instead of a straight-faced suspense picture if the writing had been exaggerated and ironic. Since it settled with typicalities, it ended up blending in a haystack of mediocrity.
Sorcerer’s Apprentice, The (2010)
★★ / ★★★★
Many years prior, Merlin had three apprentices: Balthazar (Nicolas Cage), Horvath (Alfred Molina), and Veronica (Monica Bellucci). However, Horvath decided to team up with the evil Morgana (Alice Krige) and take over the world. Veronica decided to sacrifice herself, through a series of magical spells, by emprisoning Morgana’s soul in her body. Fastforward to the 21st century, Balthazar recruited a geeky Physics student (Jay Baruchel), Dave, who he believed to be the so-called Prime Merlinian, Merlin’s successor, to prevent the release of Morgana and defeat Horvath once and for all. Naturally, nerdy Dave had other things on his mind like romancing a girl he knew when he was still in grade school. There was a lot of unnecessary backstory in “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” and it did not have a lot of payoff. Special and visual effects were abound, some were, admittedly, impressive (I highly enjoyed the scenes when statues would come to life and attempt to kill the protagonists), but what it lacked was a strong and defined emotional core. As much as I like the adorable Baruchel as an actor, I believe he might have been miscast because he failed to inject multidimensionality to his character. Yes, Physics and the girl were very important to him but what else was he passionate about? When he found out he was supposed to be the next Merlin, there was no sense of wonder and I did not feel a conflict moving enough to keep me wanting to see how things would unfold. Furthermore, I felt as though Cage was too campy for the role and most of his one-liners fell completely flat. It was almost desperate. The writers should have trimmed the parts when Cage made heavy-handed speeches about embracing destiny and focused more on the twenty-year-old who was supposed to wield a great power but did not know what to do with it. Considering that the picture was essentially a Disney film, perhaps it felt the need to cater toward children and that was the reason why pretty much everything was oversimplified. However, I think a bit of edge could have greatly benefited the movie in terms of tone. Not for a second did I believe that the bad guys had the upper hand over the good guys. Directed by Jon Turteltaub, “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” delivered many action-packed adventures all over New York City but, other than occassional thrills, it lacked a range of other emotions. Its references to “Fantasia” were highly enjoyable but since the filmmakers did not take the material to the next level, I’m not quite sure if modern audiences (especially younger kids in which it catered toward) will recognize the allusions.
Astro Boy (2009)
★★ / ★★★★
Based on a manga by Osamu Tezuka, “Astro Boy” told the story of a brilliant scientist (voiced by Nicolas Cage) specializing in robotics who recreated his son (Freddie Highmore)–physically with memories included–after the boy’s untimely death during a military testing led by a cruel president (Donald Sutherland). I thought the first third of this film was very strong. Although the look of the movie was crisp so it easily appealed to children, the story was almost a little too dark. I was impressed that it immediately tackled the idea of a parent’s debilitating grief and the effects of trying to replicate a child. It was like watching a version of Steven Spielberg’s underrated “A.I.: Artificial Intelligence” but aimed toward children. And like that film, this animated movie also explored what it meant for the main character to be a human (initially), a robot (later on), and accepting the fact that having both characteristics wasn’t so bad. It was also interesting because the first half was set in a world where robots were passively enslaved to humans. In the second half, like David from Spielberg’s film, Astro left the shiny, floating city for the city below where robots were hunted and were forced to participate in a battle royale sort of event. Unfortunately, that part of the picture wasn’t as strong. In fact, it was unfocused. There were times when the attention wasn’t on Astro’s journey but instead on the side characters’. The darkness of the first thirty minutes were stripped away and the tone felt very uneven. The momentum was so slow to the point where I wondered whether it ran out of creative ideas to entertain. I haven’t read the manga but I think if David Bowers, the director, made this picture with edge from beginning to end, it would have been a lot stronger and more interesting to adults. The whole bad guys versus good guys toward the end was kind of typical–something that one can easily see in other animated movies designed for children such as the disappointingly mediocre (but very cute) “Monsters vs. Aliens.” I felt like this film had an innate capacity to be more introspective than other animated flicks and it’s a shame it didn’t take advantage of that. Other notable voices included Bill Nighy, Samuel L. Jackson, Kristen Bell, Eugene Levy, Nathan Lane and Charlize Theron. “Astro Boy” was about a boy’s identity crisis but as a film it should have had a clearer picture about what it wanted to be. However, I did have a good time watching it because it had so much energy and some of the jokes were pretty amusing. Perhaps it’s a good rental if one could use a break from a series of serious movies like I did.