Wild Card (2015)

In an example of pun-gone-mad literal titling that I can only applaud, Jason Statham’s latest sees him play maverick Vegas bodyguard Nick WILD – a man whose only vice is playing CARDS. Actually, scratch that, he has two vices: cards and freshly squeezed grapefruit juice. Maybe it’s a subtle nod to the film’s pulp novel origins. Or maybe I’m overthinking it.

wild-card-poster-debutFor a mid to low budget actioner this boasts a quite stellar supporting cast and crew. Directed by Simon ‘simply the’ West (Con Air, Expendables 2 and a load of other Statham joints) and adapted from his own novel by two time Oscar winner William Goldman, it also features Sofia Vergara, Stanley Tucci, and Jason ‘George Costanza’ Alexander in inexplicably and frustratingly small cameo roles. Serenity now!!

In contrast to the unhinged majesty of films like Crank 2: High Voltage, this is one of Stathe’s more considered character pieces – one that allows him to run the full gamut of emotions from broodingly enigmatic to enigmatically brooding. Wild is a loner (of course), a man who never knows when to stick or twist. Trapped in a toxic co-dependant relationship with a city he loathes and the lowlifes that inhabit it, every time he thinks he’s out, they pull him back in (somebody should use that).

Nick gets a call from that most reliable Statham movie staple – the childhood sweetheart who’s about 15 years younger than him (#YEWTREE) – asking him to help her gain revenge on a brutal rapist. Played by Heroes ‘star’ Milo Ventimiglia, Dave DeMarco is a despicable fuck with an Ian Watkins beard and a sideline in sadism: he forces his victims to watch the final two seasons of Heroes – ‘Oh god, not the series with a load of carnies and T-Bag from Prison Break. YOU MONSTER!’

After no doubt causing a Twitterstorm by victim blaming her and saying she shouldn’t have gone to the Golden Nugget in the first place, Nick reluctantly agrees to help. Using all his detective nous – he asks a maid if she knows who it is, she says yes – Nick tracks DeMarco down to his hotel suite and busts heads with no more than his fists and a brutally deployed debit card (so much for contactless payment). Then they extort 50 grand, humiliate him by threatening to chop his lad off, and leave room service to clear up the mess. These people have no respect for low paid immigrant workers.

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But Nick isn’t satisfied with his lot because he needs enough money for that sailing retreat in Corsica he regularly fantasises about (‘waterway to have a good time’) and so gambles the lot on the craps tables. Yep, Simon West is yet another director who has an inexplicable boner for neverending casino scenes. I dunno, maybe it’s because I have no vices outside brogues and drone metal LPs, or maybe I’ve heard Victoria Coren turding on about poker once too often, but I don’t get it – there’s no new or exciting way to show cards being repeatedly flipped over, the house always wins, and that’s another 20 minutes of my life wasted. Even the excellent Casino Royale verged on being a World Pokerstars tournament where an action film occasionally broke out. Anyway. I’ve digressed. This isn’t about how much I hate Card Bores.

The film veers off and introduces but never fully commits to various subplots, like a young Zuckerberg avatar hiring Wild to teach him how to grab life by the balls, but it never develops into the buddy comedy you think it might. The dramatic centre is very much Stathe versus his own internal demons, though there is an amusing verbal face-off between Wild, DeMarco and the great Stanley Tucci playing a mob boss who calls everyone by their full name (Nicholas) in a way that only camply threatening film villains do.

Overall there’s actually surprisingly little ass kicking, which seems an odd choice. Hiring Statham and not having him do much fighting is about as pointless as buying a bike and then walking it along the pavement (seriously. Why do people do that?) But when the fights do come they’re satisfyingly bone-crunching and refreshingly creative – particularly in the climactic battle where Wild takes on DeMarco and his hired goons with nothing more than a teaspoon and a really small fish knife – ‘can somebody pleeeease, remove theeese cutleriees, from my kneees?’ pleads DeMarco in the final scene.

It’s alright I suppose. Statham does what Statham does, he does it better than most, and if you like him driving along the strip in a muscle car to a pumping classic rock soundtrack then you’ll like this. But compared to a lot of his output it’s weirdly underpowered, muted, and just not as much fun as you’d hope.

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Bad Lieutenant: Port Of Call New Orleans (2009)

When Nic Cage teamed up with Werner Herzog for a re-imagining, if you will, of Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant expectations were low, but nowhere near as low as those of Ferrara himself. Phlegmatic as ever, he declared: “I wish these people die in Hell. I hope they’re all in the same streetcar and it blows up.”

51vlavgBIsLWe open with a shot of a lone snake in the water. Film students may recognise this as some kind of metaphor. Pull back and it’s revealed we’re in a flooded jail cell and a prisoner is drowning. Of course Nic isn’t just going to rescue the prisoner straight away, he’s got to call said prisoner a “shit-turd” before launching into a tortuous monologue about not wanting to ruin his $55 Swiss cotton undies. Then finally he makes the two foot leap down to rescue the prisoner – don’t do it Nic!

Such an act of bravery is rewarded when he gets the Distinguished Service Cross in recognition of “extreme valour in the line of duty”… by jumping down a two foot sheer drop. But hang on, the film isn’t called Good Lieutenant, is it? Cut to the doctor’s surgery and the first of many dramatic bombshells is dropped: Nic will suffer “moderate to severe back pain,” possibly for the rest of his life. This news pushes Nic over the edge, the switch in his brain marked ACTING is flipped, and all of a sudden he’s Good Nic Gone Bad. At this juncture I should point out his character is called Terence – even the name exudes pure evil.

Anyway, Nic is investigating the execution-style murder of a New Orleans family. An investigation that will lead him into the murky world of drugs, protection rackets, prostitution, gambling, and most chillingly of all, Xzibit trying to act. But first we’ve got Nic’s crack addiction to deal with. He jumps a couple outside a club, pins them against the wall and then takes a honk on the girlfriend’s crackpipe. So far, so routine. But it soon develops into one of the most disturbing scenes in modern cinema as they start rutting against the car whilst Nic launches into some semi-incomprehensible sex banter: “Did your Daddy watch you in the high school play? Did he buy you clothes for school?” he enquires, before presumably blowing his beans when they move on to discussing the curriculum in-depth. Truly the image of Nic’s sex face, resembling as it does a leathery old baseball mitt with a couple of eyeballs glued to it, in the throes of sexual and dramatic ecstasy is one I will never expunge from my brain.

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Back to the investigation and Nic’s on the case quicker than Bangkok Dangerous to DVD. He’s bumping fists with black people, bandying about nonsensical insults (chicken shit honk), threatening witnesses and pulling out old women’s respirators during interrogation. He may not play by the rules, he may not even be able to pronounce New Orleans properly, but damn, does he get results. Meanwhile his paunchy partner Val Kilmer spends the entire film staring wistfully into the middle distance, wondering where his career, and his looks, went. But Nic’s upsetting too many people, taking too many risks and too many drugs, and before you can say ‘predictable plot twist’, he’s off the case. Turns out he doesn’t even get results. Oh well, at least it gives him more time to reignite the chemistry with lantern-jawed Latina lovely Eva Mendes which so enlivened Ghost Rider.

Before long Nic is at his lowest ebb, hallucinating iguanas on his coffee table (Iguana-cam being the next leap forward in cinema technology after 3D) and accidentally snorting heroin. Now when asked to depict spiralling drug addiction, most actors might go into rehab and spend time studying other addicts. Nic seems to have taken an altogether different route: he’s studied Danny De Vito’s performance as The Penguin in the DVD of Batman Returns. The nasal delivery, the hunched shoulders – it’s all there. But despite all these afflictions – and a sub-plot involving looking after his dad’s dog, in what I can only assume is an attempt to cash in the success of Turner and Hooch – Nic has a plan to right all these wrongs and solve the case. A plan which hinges on his lucky crackpipe. And a lot more ACTING.

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All the while this was happening I endured a raging internal dialogue: “Is this actually any good? Am I watching a good film!?” When Nic is involved, the answer would normally be an emphatic no. He hasn’t troubled the fourth star in Empire Magazine since 2002’s Adaptation. His tax returns and his hairline have garnered more column inches than any of his films. But here his ability to chew through scenery quicker than Hurricane Katrina is perfect for the character and indeed for Herzog’s devil-may-care direction. Just as New Orleans is rising from the wreckage, here we see Cage rising from his cinematic slumber, gesticulating wildly, cackling maniacally and reminding us all (well some at least) what we’ve been missing.

As a film it perfectly mirrors both actor and director: at once bravura, unpredictable, scintillating and totally demented.

Outcast (2014)

A4BD7AE7-38C1-4DC1-8E91-E85E1E57919E copy‘Almighty God, in my hour of need be with me.’

Hayden Christensen speaks for most viewers in the opening line of Nic Cage’s Crusades epic. Christensen’s Jacob and Cage’s Gallain are cutting a bloody swathe through 12th century China – this much damage hasn’t been done to East West relations since Dave Whelan and Malky Mackay went for a night out to Wigan’s Imperial Pagoda restaurant and engaged in some friendly ‘banter’ with the staff. They bloody love it.

Looking like a League 2 footballer who’s gone to Supercuts requesting an Olivier Giroud that’s gone slightly awry, Jacob is happily slashing, stabbing and decapitating his way through extras. Gallain on the other hand sports the world-weary expression of somebody who’s just clocking in and doing the bare minimum – he really isn’t getting any job satisfaction ‘spilling blood for hypocrite priests’ anymore.

Flash forward three years and the wizened emperor has succession on his mind. His two sons are like yin and yang (aren’t they always?) Tired of years of war and bloodshed he gives the emperor’s seal to his younger peace loving son, much to the disgruntlement of his more bloodthirsty, proactive older son Shing – despite counsel to the contrary he isn’t too sure that Shings can only get better. Sensing his brother will be pretty pissed off by this, the emperor elect swiftly does one before Shing kills his dad and hotfoots it in pursuit with the Black Guard in tow.

Meanwhile in a particularly rustic Brewdog somewhere, Christensen is ruminating on the horrors he committed in the past. And when he’s not thinking about the Star Wars prequels he remembers some of them bad murders he done too. He’s now addicted to opium – ‘mmm, so Moorish!’ (hang on, that was Spain not China, wasn’t it) and spends his time getting into bar brawls that inevitably end in Spartacus-style piss humiliation.

Anyway. His and the boy emperor’s paths cross and Poochie asks him to help navigate safe passage back to the capital on the basis that ‘our lives and the future of our kingdom depend on your wits.’ They both agree they’re probably fucked then, but Jacob agrees anyway in return for coin and spiritual redemption of some kind as a cross country pursuit ensues. But they’re covering nowhere near as many miles as Christensen’s accent, veering as it does between English and Oirish with alarming regularity – wrong kind of paddy, Hayds, this is China not Dublin.

With the guards still after him they eventually take refuge in a brothel:
‘I’m thirsty’
‘Sake?’
‘No, I meant it, I really want a drink’
*Silence*

Hold on, Nic Cage is hardly in this! This is bullshit.

Fear not though. As it becomes clear those pesky sex workers weren’t after his lucky charms but have betrayed him, and with guards surrounding the place, the mysterious White Ghost rides to the rescue. Now with only one eye, and carrying a rental snake he uses to groom his beard, Cage acts the bloody doors off as he plays a bizarre hybrid of SuperHans and Withnail.

This performance is incredible.

Bellowing ‘where’s my wine!?’ and bandying about nonsense similes such as ‘guards are as much use as flies on a farting goats arse’, it’s lucky that his swordplay is better than his wordplay as he busts heads and punctuates his own jokes with incongruous booming laughter. But Nic isn’t an Oscar winner for nothing as he displays a few more contemplative moments too:
‘Guards took out my eye, but I still have my hair. Which is all that matters’
*sniggering off camera*

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So is this film any good then? Objectively, no. Of course it isn’t. But Cage films exist in a strange netherworld between Hollywood blockbusters and budget B-movies, and judged on those terms it was more watchable than some of the bilge he’s pumped out recently. This is mostly due to Nic’s uproarious cameo. Its most obvious cinematic relative is Johnny ‘Interesting’ Depp in the neverending Pirates franchise. But whereas Depp’s weirdness feels some somewhat studied and contrived, Nic is clearly totally demented and he’s having a ball here.

When he isn’t onscreen the film desperately drags, but maybe it does point towards what he should do from hereon in. Even during his mid 90s heyday when he redefined the action movie, he was always an unconventional leading man. And bar an unlikely Neeson-esque renaissance, his name alone is probably never going to open a film again. But like his hair-a-like Andy Carroll, if sparingly used as an impact substitute in extended cameos – as here or his role in Kick-Ass – there’s no reason why he couldn’t have a productive and enjoyable later career.

If he’s going to do that he needs better service though – the plotting is at least competent, but the story is hackneyed and the direction poor. Nick Powell’s previous work includes choreographing and shooting the fight scenes in the Bourne Identity, but the leaden, repetitive slugfests here have none of that invention or kinetic energy. Apparently he was also the stunt co-ordinator on Doc Martin, so maybe he should have included a scene where Nic gets chased down a country lane by a randy goose. Opportunity missed.

The VRAs – Killer Nun (1979)

1350424706_monahinya-ubiyca-killer-nun-suor-omicidi-1979Allegedly based on real events in a Belgian nursing home, Killer Nun was part of the thriving nunsploitation scene of the seventies – a scene that exemplifies there isn’t a single profession that men won’t try to sex up in some way. ‘They want to lock themselves away for their entire lives and swear off us all together? Gagging for it.’

Years after being responsible for one of the most iconic minor public order offences in cinema history when she turded around in a fountain in La Dolce Vita, bona fide legend and Fellini regular Anita Ekberg pitches up here as the titular NILF with a dark secret.

We open with a faceless nun ranting at length in confession about a man what done her wrong. She won’t forgive him and, pre-dating rad fem Twitter nauses by thirty-odd years, she declares that she wants to ‘kill all men.’ Todd Unctious just rolls his eyes, looks at his watch and sighs ‘I knock off at five, couldn’t you just Storify this instead?’

Ekberg plays Sister Gertrude – the head nurse in a psychiatric hospital. Since having surgery to remove a brain tumour she’s been subject to violent moodswings, memory lapses, and a crippling morphine habit. I said HABIT. She insists that she’s still ill but the doctors think it’s psychosomatic as they’ve looked at the X-rays and they’re nun the wiser. She even volunteers to have herself put in solitary confinement but that lousy Mother Superior is just so superior and she’s having none of it.

Gradually her behaviour becomes more malevolent, subjecting her patients to punishing physical workouts, reading interminably long bible passages and, most maniacally of all, sending them to bed without their bowl of oxtail. ‘No soup for you!’ Her bedside manner really needs some work and before long things degenerate to the point where she’s smashing up patient’s dentures and pulling out IV lines. And people think the NHS has problems.

Soon patients start dropping dead and the finger of suspicion points firmly at old crazy eyes over there – when it comes to accusations like this, irrational behaviour, drug addiction, blackouts and sinister theremin music kicking in every time you pick up a scalpel are a total PR disaster. Her only ally is her roommate Sister Mathieu – she just happens to be in love with Sister Gertrude and she’s so busy trying to provide alibis for her that she regularly forgets to put any clothes on. Sister Morphine is fine with this because not only has she developed a raging drug problem, her psychosis is playing havoc with her libido too.

Sensing the opportunity to kill two birds with one stone she steals a deceased patient’s jewellery and goes on a short city break to pawn it for drug money, see the sights, and a lot more besides. She parks herself in a wine bar and shamelessly racially profiles the clientele (‘no, too Latin for my tastes’) before settling on her potential conquest, hitching up her skirt, and taking him back to her Travel Tavern where he does her right there in the corridor. Of the hotel. Ave Maria.

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Back at the convent and some tedious HR chicanery leads to her chief accuser getting his P45. But despite – or maybe because of – Sister Mathieu’s best efforts the stench of suspicion won’t wash off. See the bodies are still piling up – one guy is bludgeoned to death with a candlestick for getting on the murderer’s wick, whilst a disabled man is suffocated for the abhorrent crime of having an active sex life. If Gert is the culprit then add ableist to her sundry list of character flaws along with racist and mentalist.

Matters only get worse when a new meddling doctor enters the fray (amongst other things) before they reluctantly get the police involved because ‘the Catholic church doesn’t want a scandal – we need to keep this out of the press.’ It’s a strategy that’s worked just fine over the years, and none more so than here when they finally catch the culprit. Or do they.

As with many films on the banned list the reasons for Killer Nun’s inclusion are completely baffling. Contrary to the way its been marketed, it has much more in common with the giallo genre of Italian thrillers than more generic slasher pics or the work of exploitation kings like Jess Franco. Most of the violence and gore is implied and the sexual content is pretty mild (I tried not to sound too disappointed as I typed that.) The blasphemous content is the only thing likely to leave audiences incensed and clutching their rosary beads.

Overall it’s an unholy bore despite a more starry cast than most video nasties – along with Ekberg there’s Warhol regular Joe Dallesandro and Suspiria and The Third Man star Alida Valli. Ekberg in particular does her best to sell the material, but as a horror film it completely fails, as a psychological chiller it’s only partially effective, and as a tale of sexy sexy nuns having a sexy sexy time it’s nowhere near as much fun as it should be. I’m usually a sucker for anything with portentous organ music and lazy religious imagery, but while the production design and cinematography may be fairly stylish and bold, they don’t make up for the leaden pace and obvious plotting.

This was director Giulio Berruti’s second and last film, and compared to some of the stellar output from his countrymen during this era, it’s no great loss that his film career was given the last rites. Neither compellingly good nor amusingly bad, I don’t recommend you pull up a pew and watch.

This is our ongoing series about films that were banned by the British government, using the Video Recordings Act of 1984. You have the right-wing gutter press and a few Christian pressure groups to thank for these films becoming more famous than they had any right to be (in all but a few cases), and the fact they’ve now virtually all been re-released, uncut, while the law remains in place, tells you more about moral panics than it does about the content of the films. See the VRAs “mission statement” here.

Dying Of The Light (2014)

dying-of-the-light-98761-poster-xlarge-resizedNic Cage’s latest is yet another film which has been released simultaneously on VOD to stop riots in Cineworld foyers around the world when it inevitably sells out. Dying of the Light seeks to answer an important philosophical question: how bad does a film have to be for even Nic Cage to disown it? Its troubled gestation saw director Paul Schrader and the headline cast refuse to promote it in protest at pesky studio meddling.

Cage plays CIA special ops maestro turned desk jockey and ace after dinner speaker Evan Lake. “People think we’re all backstabbers watching porn and tapping phones!!” he booms at a nonplussed room of new recruits. He’s no Peter Ustinov, and the toastmaster makes a mental note to book Sir Steve Redgrave instead for his next motivational talk.

Lake isn’t happily coasting to retirement though – he wishes he was still out there in the field. The past haunts him like bad reviews haunt Gerard Butler and he can’t expunge the memory of the one who got away: terrorist Mohammad Banir. Or ‘tourist’ as Nic insists on pronouncing it in his ongoing War On Enunciation.

Lake thinks Banir escaped in an operation that went south 20 years ago, because although presumed dead ‘the corpse didn’t have a head’ (and there’s obviously no other way to I.D. a body). The trauma of that day left him with a Holyfield ear and turned his hair whiter than the crowd at a Belle and Sebastian gig, and things only get worse when his GP informs him he’s now facing his toughest foe yet: DEMENTIA.
“You will be subject to overreactions, inappropriate reactions and blank spells” advises Dr Spaceman.
“But that’s enough about my acting style, what are the symptoms of the illness?” deadpans Nic. Laughter really is the best medicine.

Word gets back to Lake that Banir is alive but no so well in Mombasa, as he’s suffering from a life-ending hereditary anaemic condition and being treated by a Romanian quack. He wants to go out there and finish what he started, but after some semi-incomprehensible trash talking with the crusty old head of the CIA – “You have your head so far up Obama’s ass you can’t see anything except shit” – he’s off the force and he’s gone rogue. Of course he has.

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What follows is a fairly low stakes game of trans-continental cat and mouse as a terminally ill man tracks his terminally ill enemy across the globe. Nic employs undercover chops not seen since Team America as dons a fake beard, glasses and an Aleksandr Meercat accent to confront his nemesis for a final, wheezing, tedious philosophical face-off.
“The only hope for Islam now is social justice. Have you read any of my work? I publish sometimes on the internet.”
“A social justice blog?? I’m terminally ill, not suicidal” Nic replies.

Unsurprisingly the film is a shambles, but its hard to ascertain how much of that is down to post production fiddling. Cage films are rarely without weird tonal shifts, and Shrader’s directorial career has been fairly scattergun – from the creepy as fuck Auto Focus, via having his Exorcist prequel shitcanned, and casting sex bore posterboy James Deen in the near universally derided The Canyons.

Sometimes it threatens to be a meditative character study, pondering on mortality and revenge, before taking a hard right into reactionary politics and B movie ultraviolence. And what looks like being a thoughtful, ambiguous ending is quickly sacked off in favour of Nic sporting a collarless leather jacket for a generic shootout.

Cage’s performance, whilst intensely watchable, is all over the place, though it’s good to see he’s read Russell Crowe’s memo and is acting his age for once. Never knowingly underplaying it, he’s a mess of nervous tics, incongruous booming laughter, with the odd contemplative moment thrown in. Seriously, this performance has more layers than a Taste The Difference lasagne.

As a film it sums up Nic’s metier in microcosm: decent ideas, moments of promise, and genuine talent turded up the wall. His career still seems to be stuck in the nosedive it went into in Left Behind, and his next film is going to have to do something pretty special to arrest that decline. Next on his roster is Outcast, in which he plays a samurai with a topknot, an indeterminate accent, and a lazy eye. SHIT.

Left Behind (2014)

PHiJa5lw94DHlk_1_mCashing in on the runaway success of The Leftovers, Left Behind fills in the narrative gap from that series. Whereas The Leftovers covers the tedious goings-on years after a mass disappearance, this film deals with the tedious immediate aftermath. And you know a film is bad when it makes you yearn for the deft writing touch of Damon Lindelof.

This is a straightforward disaster movie, but one with sledgehammer religious overtones. The makers seem to have watched Airplane! and interpreted it not as a disaster movie spoof, but more as a ‘how to’ guide.

Nic Cage plays a pilot with the mandatory Complicated Home Life. Still inexplicably dead sexy to girls despite looking like a melting waxwork of himself from 20 years ago, he’s drifting apart from his bible bashing wife, so he consoles himself by plowing through more air hostesses than Led Zeppelin in the 1970s. Whatever works. He’s even so keen to avoid a family gathering that he leaves his daughter at the airport and makes up a ‘last minute job’ so he can fly to London to see a U2 concert. Now I hate parties as much as the next man but U2? He must be really desperate.

When dealing with big spiritual themes and impending disaster it would be easy to lapse into parody, and this film isn’t going to disappoint. One of the opening scenes sees a woman at the airport pick up a book called ACTS OF GOD and immediately get into a theological debate with Nic’s daughter that even Russell Brand would deem ’a bit 6th form common room’ – ‘If God loves us all so much why doesn’t he STOP these disasters, eh??’ BOOM. Book Cage Jr on Big Questions with Nicky Campbell.

The passengers themselves seem to be flying to an overseas caricature convention because it’s a veritable Noah’s Ark of cinema stereotypes. All human life is here: a Texas oil baron, a needlessly aggressive dwarf, a recovering drug addict and a devout Muslim – yeah, it’s not looking good for you mate. There’s also a blandly hunky and bafflingly well-known news reporter who engages in some tiresome low-level flirting with Nic’s daughter and looks set to be an unwelcome presence throughout the flight. Oh, and Jordin Sparks is onboard too, although when the cabin later depressurises she doesn’t even ask ‘how am I gonna breathe with no aiiiir?’ Seriously. It’s this kind of lazy scriptwriting that’s symptomatic of the film’s malaise as a whole.

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Anyway. We’re not far into the flight when disaster strikes. A brief rumble, the lights flicker, and then suddenly there’s going to be a few in-flight meals going uneaten. Panic, and unintentional hilarity, quickly ensues because the disappeared leave their discarded clothing behind, leaving people sobbing uncontrollably over what look like particularly slapdash Blue Harbour displays – I don’t like belted chinos with deck shoes either but I wouldn’t lose my shit over it. It’s the same back at ground level with random disappearances leaving driverless cars crashing (even a good twenty minutes after it happens) and the streets descending into scenes like Black Friday at Asda. Then it’s terror at 30,000 ft because almost immediately the plane starts exhibiting a whole checklist of Random Technical Problems which means they’re going to have to head back and try to crash land. Half Nic’s family may have gone, and he may be about to plunge to his fiery death, but it looks like that U2 concert is off after all. Every cloud, eh?

We’re a good halfway through the film before anybody stumbles to a conclusion about what may have happened because apparently, despite Nic being married to a batshit Christian fundamentalist, and most of the driverless cars having Jesus fish on the bumper, nobody has ever heard of the Rapture. It’s only when the recovering drug addict recalls something about it from church camp years ago that the pieces fall into place – ‘Tell us more!?’, demand the cabin. ‘Oh, I can’t really remember, because, you know…’ *syringe gesture* she replies. Looks like she picked the wrong day to stop doing smack.

By this point anybody still watching will surely be praying for forgiveness because it’s quite parodically bad, right down to the crudely photoshopped family portrait that makes regular appearances. And the moment where Nic lurches to the truth by flicking through a disappeared flight attendant’s diary and seeing the words BIBLE STUDY in block caps is a hall of fame forehead slapper even by his exalted standards. It’s also so oppressively pro-Christianity that it would turn Richard Dawkins to self harm. So at least it’s got that going for it.

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Cheaply made, poorly scripted, and risible in every respect, it’s another depressing addition to the bulging Shit Nic canon. At one point the (un-raptured) church pastor says of his sermons ‘I knew all the words but I didn’t believe them.’ And so it goes too for the script in another film where Cage is, quite literally in this case, on autopilot.

TL;DR: biblically awful

Joe (2013)

joe-movie-posterNearly 20 years since he won an Oscar for Ghost Rider 2: Spirit of Vengeance [subs plz check] Nic Cage is probably more infamous for chain-buying castles and a hairline more unstable than the Middle East than his undoubted acting chops. Bar the brief Recagessance of Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call – New Orleans and Kick-Ass, the combination of a crippling tax bill and the world’s least discerning agent have seen Nic mired in the bargain bin of despair in 5USA fare like Stolen, Trespass and Justice.

And after a promising early career in which film festival favourites like All The Real Girls launched a pre-fringe Zooey Deschanel on a career path where she has consistently charmed moviegoers and critics alike (SHUT UP), David Gordon Green’s C.V. has taken a similarly dispiriting turn into tiresome stoner comedies (Pineapple Express, Your Highness) and championing the fathomless comic appeal of Danny McBride. But with Joe, the two wayward talents have combined to create a dark, nuanced, thoughtful mini masterpiece.

Cage stars as the titular Joe. A rugged, brooding, outdoorsman with a drink problem, a plaid problem, a Brillo pad beard and the haunted expression of a man just back from a paintballing weekend that went south – he’s essentially Ray Mears without the sense of whimsy. Joe makes his living in deforestation – filling trees with poison so they can later be cleared. But is it just the trees that are filled with poison or is it also Joe? Throughout his career Nic has never shied away from a sledgehammer metaphor, reasoning that subtlety is like a Levellers fan: it won’t wash. And just to clear up any ambiguity he goes on to add ‘These trees are weak. They’re not good for anything’ before wrestling a snake because he’s not afraid to grab life, or his enemies, by the throat.

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He takes under his wing 15 year old drifter Gary – the son of an abusive father with anger issues of his own, he becomes a surrogate son to Joe and the two immediately form a strong if slightly uncomfortable bond. Now a partially reformed ex-con, Joe is basically a decent man constantly battling to suppress the bubbling volcanic rage within, which could erupt at any moment like Mount ACTOR. Whilst trying to mentor Gary down the right path, events, and a local hick, inevitably conspire against him. Though the calm and monotony of everyday rural working life is punctuated with moments of sudden, shocking violence Joe counsels Gary that violence is the problem, not the solution, and that ‘restraint is the only thing that keeps me alive.’

It’s the relationship between these two leads which is the heartbeat of the film – Cage’s natural world-weary, curiously equine sorrowfulness being the perfect counterpoint to Tye Sheridan’s more idealistic dreamer. And Gary Poulter as Gary’s father Wade is terrific – a wretched and deplorable man, he flits effortlessly between extreme weakness and sickening aggression.

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This being a Cage joint there are plenty of weird tonal shifts, baffling subplots, and disturbing psychosexual interludes. For instance Joe has a running vendetta against the dog at the local cathouse because, like Poochie in the Simpsons, he’s too proactive and totally in his face (’that dog is an asshole’). So naturally he chooses to set his own dog on it and kill it, whilst he directs a prostitute to fellate him with all the eroticism and sexual intensity of Ed Miliband reading aloud the cooking instructions on a bag of Quorn mince. This is then somewhat incongruously followed by a soft rock soundtracked montage in which Joe and Gary go on a drink-fuelled, laugh riot of a road-trip in search of the escaped Cujo, during which Cage riffs amusingly on his own Method skills by teaching Gary how to look troubled and mysterious in order to attract girls. And of course the bizarre career-long theme of Nic Cage Being Sexually Irresistible To Women continues unabated.

Otherwise though, the film switches seamlessly between illustrating the unrelenting drudgery, simmering ultraviolence and stifling masculine air of life in the Deep South, and isolated lighter moments of camaraderie and kindness.

An uncompromising, unsentimental, slow-burn character study, with a tough, unusually understated central performance and brilliant support, Joe looks set to herald the beginning of The Second Recagessance (until his next straight-to-DVD steamer).

TL;DR: he’s a lumberjack and it’s okay. 8/10.

Vampire’s Kiss (1988)

300_141757To mark the 25th anniversary of its cinema release – a Criterion edition must surely be on the cards – I’m revisiting cult Cage classic Vampire’s Kiss. The late 80s and early 90s were a troubled time for Nic – his career wasn’t one long succession of critical and commercial smashes like it is today [citation needed] and Vampire’s Kiss was one of a trio of inexplicable misfires, along with Fire Birds (Top Gun, but with helicopters) and Zandalee (erotic thriller co-starring Judge Reinhold) to be released around this time.

Nic plays Peter Loew – a sleazy literary agent by day, and even sleazier womaniser by night. Events take a turn for the sexual when he gets an erection whilst trying to shoo a bat out of his apartment (yep, this film is literally batshit). The next night he pulls Jennifer Beals and before you know it he’s down to his socks. And when Nic’s down to his socks you know what time it is – it’s ACTING time. Flashdance proceeds to chow down on his neck but the next morning she’s vanished quicker than her own topline film career.

Almost immediately Peter begins to feel rundown and anxious, eventually convincing himself that he’s become a vampire. And it’s here that the psychodrama, and the acting, really begin. In a searing yet subtle critique of the yuppie lifestyle, Peter has been metaphorically sucking people’s blood for years, but now he’s doing it for real. Truly this film is a ringing endorsement of the Garth Marenghi maxim ‘subtext is for cowards.’

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What follows is a masterclass of kamikaze acting – he’s taking the film down with no survivors. Nic wheezes, lurches, cackles and gurns his way from one scene to the next. He terrorises his secretary, and in a plotline which even the makers of the Twilight saga would deem ‘a bit pedestrian’ he genuinely spends a good 50 minutes of the film harassing her with increasing vigour until she finds a crucial misplaced file. Yeah, vampires may be pure evil, but they’re sticklers for administrative integrity too. As his behaviour becomes more debauched and debased we’re left to question whether his transformation is happening at all, or if it’s just the result of mescaline-induced hallucinations. Certainly I felt like I must be hallucinating watching it, and whichever lousy Hollywood fatcat saw the treatment for this and thought it had ‘solid gold hit’ written all over it DEFINITELY was.

The pace may be funereal, the storyline illogical, and the direction diabolical (the director only has one piece of stock footage of traffic in New York which he uses about half a dozen times) but Cage is never less than intensely watchable – this is the stuff YouTube compilations are made of. Even by his own standards Nic makes one of the most bizarre accent choices of his career, unveiling a unique hybrid of Ted ‘Theodore’ Logan and C Montgomery Burns, with a dash of Engerlish thrown in for good measure. In one key scene he eats a live cockroach – not only a Method tour de force, but also one which allowed Nic to exorcise some childhood demons, as in later years he would recount that he used to have nightmares that his mother’s head was attached to the body of a cockroach.

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When asked to describe the film himself Nic thoughtfully comments ‘It’s not a film that can or should be analysed. It’s like a bad dream or a scary painting. People either hate it or absolutely love it – both viewpoints are valid.’ The New Yorker were slightly less charitable, noting ‘Cage delivers a remarkable portrait of a completely obnoxious jerk’, with fellow late 80s hellraiser Jim Carrey adding ‘He’s really talented, but what the fuck is he doing?’ That’s a question that has vexed seasoned Cage watchers for years, and never more so than here.

There are three archetypal Cage performances. The first is where a director and Cage are in perfect harmony, his maniacal energy and maverick instincts reined in and utilised to maximum effect. The second is where he’s on autopilot – not so much phoning it in as sending a sloppily spelled text. The third is where Nicolas is uncaged – he destroys the film from within with a blizzard of demented tics and untamed overacting. This falls squarely in the latter camp – he’s less Bram Stoker and more Ham Stoker.

Over the years Nic has ended more film careers than McCarthyism, and this was pretty much a stake through the heart of the celluloid careers of all involved. Jennifer Beals was barely spotted on the big screen again, and first time director Robert Bierman can more recently be found directing episodes of The Bill and Holby City. Over two decades on however, and the man himself continues to rise from the cinematic dead to terrify audiences, baffle critics and bleed one film studio after another dry.