Movie Review ~ Prisoners of the Ghostland

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A notorious criminal must break an evil curse in order to rescue an abducted girl who has mysteriously disappeared.

Stars: Nicolas Cage, Sofia Boutella, Bill Moseley, Nick Cassavetes, Yuzuka Nakaya, Lorena Kotô, Canon Nawata, Charles Glover, Cici Zhou, Louis Kurihara

Director: Sion Sono

Rated: NR

Running Length: 103 minutes

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review:  Here’s what we all need to realize about Nicolas Cage – he knows exactly what he’s doing.  Anytime a GIF or a meme is passed around with one of Cage’s signature crazy eye looks or classic freak out faces, it’s the result of a carefully calculated plan on the part of the actor to dig into whatever character he’s playing.  It gives the director something to work with, something to drive his fellow actors crazy, and it makes audiences nervously anticipate his next move/movie because you truly don’t know how he’ll pivot. 

Once a mainstay on the Hollywood A-List, after Cage won his Oscar in 1995 he toiled about in various blockbusters until his star waned after one too many fails at the box office.  That’s when Cage started thinking in volume, not quality, and the sheer number of films he was in rose dramatically.  While lazy actors like Bruce Willis have taken over the mantle of this business model, Cage was king of making these random films that were almost indistinguishable from one another.  I’m not sure exactly when or how it happened, but I noticed Cage began to stretch again in 2018 with the release of Mandy, a well-received horror film that was often a nightmare to watch which genre fans went ape over.  Coming back a year later with Color Out of Space, an even more impressive blend of Cage-iness mixed with a trippy H.P. Lovecraft vibe, it was obvious the actor was finding his groove with projects and directors that spoke to him.

Continuing to star in the occasional quickie, Cage set the film community ablaze already twice this year with two different projects, the bizarre Willy’s Wonderland and one of his best performances to date, Pig.  Now, I’m still willing to work for Cage’s team to help them mount a campaign for him to get in the Best Actor race for his work in that excellent film but I’m thinking he won’t need much help getting there on his own.  The end of the year may be getting crowded but what he did with that film is still so fresh in my mind that I can imagine voters that saw it will be feeling the same way.  Perhaps it’s best to keep certain voters away from Cage’s latest movie, though.  It might undo some of that goodwill Pig served up.

Let me state for the record before we gain entry to Prisoners of the Ghostland that I found the first English-language film from director Sion Sono to be almost operatic in nature and often just as frustrating to sit through.  It has moments that are wildly creative, sucking you into its energy field with an enticing mythology and fringe characters that have you craning your neck to see more.  On the other hand, Sono displays his typical taste for excess and winds up almost choking the life out of the picture before anyone has a chance to get much of anything done.  The extreme director is a good match for Cage, and both know it, so it’s just a question of who wants to go bigger before going home. 

Set in a world undone by a nuclear catastrophe where scattered cultures have created a mishmash of design and community, Prisoners of the Ghostland drops us into Samurai Town, a brothel run by the smarmy Governor (Bill Moseley, Texas Chainsaw) who has lost something near and dear to him.  His adopted granddaughter Bernice (Sofia Boutella, Climax) has vanished, and the Governor needs a professional to travel to the dangerous Ghostland to find her.  The man for the job is, naturally, named Hero (Cage, Valley Girl) and to incentivize him to keep his cool in all matters he’s wired with explosives at particular points of his body. Think about hitting a woman?  Bye-bye arm.  The bombs on his nether regions are self-explanatory…there will be no unauthorized breeding in Ghostland.  Fail to find her, and that bomb around his neck will efficiently end his life.

With only a few short days to find Bernice and bring her back, he’ll have to work fast because while finding Bernice turns out to be easy, returning her isn’t a walk in the park.  As Hero learns more about the horrific conditions in Ghostland and its inhabitants, he plans a revenge plot to secure his freedom and the liberty of others.  Yet a memory from the past still plagues him, a memory that turns out to have a major impact on his current mission, throwing a significant wrench in the outcome of the plot to overthrow the powerful Governor and those that follow him. 

The screenplay from Aaron Hendry & Reza Sixo Safai is surprisingly original and not based off any previous work and both writers have given the dynamics of Ghostland some intriguing wrinkles.  In Sono’s visionary hand, the world creation is complete and so you have something that is marvelous to look at, if just a tad vacant overall.  It’s like those walls of a community theater production that look so impressive from the 12th row but once you get up close you see that it’s just a two-inch flimsy piece of painted plywood…but for a while, you were fooled.  This ruse is helped along by, no surprise here, Cage’s fully immersed performance that never comprises or belies any doubt in the material.  That’s the special sauce which keeps Cage operating so reliably at 120% from film to film.  Like him or loathe him, he believes in what he’s doing and that in turn creates an atmosphere where everything is possible, and anything can happen. 

In previous films, not everyone has been as game as Cage but Sono has surrounded his star with a roster of like-minded actors that go for broke and don’t care who’s watching.  Boutella is, in many ways, an actress after Cage’s heart that’s more than willing to go toe-to-toe for control of scenes.  Lithe in body and able to tap into relatable and raw emotions, she’s an interesting counterpart to Cage’s deep well of regret…both are individuals in pain that need saving and perhaps this journey will wind up benefitting both.  Moseley and a scary Nick Cassavetes (The Other Woman) as Cage’s former partner now mysterious rival, pop off the screen with appropriate villainy but watch out for Tak Sakaguchi silently stealing the movie as a cunning assassin who gets some ferociously fun fight sequences.  While the film is filled with several memorable performances for the right reasons, there’s a central character that’s so atrociously annoying it begins to cast the rest of the actors in a bad light.  I’m going to refrain from passing that name along but once you see the movie, you’ll know who she is.

Along with Mandy and Color of Space, Prisoner of the Ghostland feels like it’s completing a trilogy of interesting reaches by Cage into foreign territory.  Not only are they gambles that have by and large paid off for him creatively, but critically and commercially they’ve done well for his credibility…far more than his direct to video feed-trough junk he had been making.  Couple that with a quieter and more reflective role in Pig and you begin to see an actor coming into another stage of their career where box office isn’t key, but fulfillment of mind, body, and soul is.  Lucky for us, that desire also comes with an entertainment value as well.

Movie Review ~ Pig

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: A truffle hunter who lives alone in the Oregonian wilderness must return to his past in Portland in search of his beloved foraging pig after she is kidnapped.

Stars: Nicolas Cage, Alex Wolff, Adam Arkin

Director: Michael Sarnoski

Rated: R

Running Length: 91 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: I only heard about Pig but a few short weeks back when indie studio NEON started advertising the trailer for it on social media.  A Nicolas Cage movie about a man that loses his pig and is going to find the men that took her? Gulp.  The trailer looked bleak.  The prospects looked dim.  The film just didn’t look like it had a lot to it and while NEON is always known for producing, if nothing else, work that is challenging for the viewer, I didn’t know if I wanted to see Cage running around appearing disheveled looking for his swine only to find out she became last Wednesday’s BLT.  I mean, this was NEON after all, and they’ve released some pretty out-there stuff.   

While I’d heard some positive items about the movie, I’ve largely kept my head down until it came to me and by then, I was sort of nervous to watch it.  My feeling of discomfort had only grown, and I just struggled with not wanting to have a bad experience with anything animal related, pig or Nic Cage otherwise.  I’m someone that was a Cage supporter for longer than most.  I was there with him in the early years, even through the Peggy Sue Got Married kind of weird days and into his blockbuster Simpson/Bruckheimer box office boffo smash summers.  I stuck around for the dramatic reaches, into the Oscar win, the descent into Crazy Eyes Cage (did it start with De Palmas Snake Eyes in 1998?) and even for the decline of selection in roles, but I started to draw the line at the numerous titles that bypassed theaters and went straight to video.  While Mandy and Color Out of Space were fine examples of a director’s superlative vision holding Cage at bay, would a first-time feature director’s quiet and simple movie keep Cage’s zeal monster at bay?

A case where the stars aligned and good fortune shone down on many, Pig is one of those movies that come along rarely in the career of a number of actors and Cage happens to be the beneficiary of this gift.  Co-writer and director Michael Sarnoski’s film may have a brief, blunt, title but its lasting impact is felt long after the credits have completed.  Its success drives deep into using one’s own introspection as the thorniest weapon against your opponent instead of physical violence and the result is both a stunning film and the best performance Cage has given since his Oscar-winning turn in 1995’s Leaving Las Vegas.  Many in the industry and critics group alike thought Cage would never again make it to reputable awards consideration again, this is the movie and performance to prove them wrong.

Living a solitary live in the woods of Oregon with only a small foraging pig to keep him company, Rob (Cage, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse) spends the days roaming the forest digging up precious truffles that fetch a pretty penny in nouveau bistros specializing in the latest in haute cuisine.  From what we gather, the only interaction he has is a once-a-week visit with Amir (Alex Wolff, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle), a restaurant rep trying to make a name for himself in the business and step out of his imperious father’s (Adam Arkin, Halloween H20: 20 Years Later) looming shadow.  Not that Amir is the kindest of souls. He drives a bougie car and has some choice words for the friendly pig that just wants to greet a new face.  A lone cassette with his name labeled on it that begins to play a song we barely hear tells us that Rob had a life before all this…but what, we don’t know.

This tranquil routine is disrupted when Rob’s precious companion is violently stolen, leaving him bloodied and even more bedraggled looking than before.  Barely taking time to gather his thoughts, he hoofs it to the nearest form of civilization and calls the one person he knows may have answers…Amir.  Together, the men enter into a search not just for the whereabouts of the pig, who stole it, and why, but eventually into the recesses of a complicated past Rob has spent a significant amount of time trying to bury.  Once an esteemed chef with a name that still carries weight in current circles, a tragedy caused him to retreat and withdraw, eventually finding a less interactive way to remain connected to his former profession through his truffle hunting.  A photographic memory proves useful when encountering old employees, rivals, and meals cooked, and the ability to read people is an effective method of getting the information he needs without having to exert much force.  

Cage being Cage, I honestly though Pig was going to be a lot more hard-boiled than it turned out to be.  Instead, Sarnoski and his co-screenwriter Vanessa Block have turned their story over-easy, allowing its gentle beats to gradually land as we learn more about Rob through small interactions with people he crosses paths with after years of separation.  I often found myself holding my breath, crossing my fingers the film could maintain its mood and thankfully it always stayed on track.  The crown jewel centerpiece of Pig is a restaurant scene in which Cage unravels the life of a man he seeks answers from in one haunting speech.  Make sure you are free from distraction during this sequence because it’s one that I swear Sarnoski has left a slight pause for at the end for audiences to recover with applause, a few deep breaths, or both.

It pleases me to no end that Cage is so finely tuned to the role, never going too big or even too small when Rob turns totally inward during moments of grief.  It shows you that when Cage really wants to do it right, he can, and when he’s only doing it for the money that lack of commitment is also visible.  For Pig, he’s firing on all cylinders and is backed by Wolff’s slick up and comer that finds himself in the middle of his own personal journey while tagging along on Rob’s.  Arkin’s brief turn is quite a departure for him but works all the same, it’s only two scenes but the weight placed on the first one adds to the nuances that must be offered in the second.

Frankly, I don’t care much for films that break things down into chapters and if there’s one element of Pig that I could lose it would be the screenplay quite literally making it a three-chapter melodrama.  That’s just one small quibble in what is a feast of delights being offered to us.  For Sarnoski, it’s a wonderful way to start a feature film career, a calling card that speaks to talent as a writer and a director.  With Cage, it demonstrates again why he’s an actor to be taken seriously, even when he has trouble taking himself seriously.  Right now, he’s in the zone and I hope he stays there.

Movie Review ~ Color Out of Space

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: After a meteorite lands in the front yard of their farm, Nathan Gardner and his family find themselves battling a mutant extraterrestrial organism that infects their minds and bodies, transforming their quiet rural life into a technicolor nightmare.

Stars: Nicolas Cage, Joely Richardson, Madeleine Arthur, Brendan Meyer, Julian Hilliard, Elliot Knight, Q’orianka Kilcher, Tommy Chong

Director: Richard Stanley

Rated: Unrated

Running Length: 111 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: It may seem like a distant memory now, but there was a time when Nicolas Cage was a bona fide movie star that had clout at the box office and with the notoriously picky voters in several guilds/associations that handed out major awards. Winning an Oscar for Leaving Las Vegas in 1995, Cage was always a bit of an odd duck in his approach to his craft and his habit for driving his co-stars nuts (the female ones in particular) has been well documented as more than just idle Hollywood lore. Recently, Cage has seemed to revel in leaning in to the public perception of him and it feels like he pops up in some random movie every other month. I’m not sure when the man has time to sleep or get his well cared for hair system spiffed up but he’s an old school acting workhorse.

Though most of the films Cage stars in are indecipherable from the other, every now and then he finds himself in one that gets people talking. Back in 2018 that film was Mandy, a grim head trip of a horror movie that became a bit of an underground hit – inspiring late night showings and putting Cage back in the good graces of fans that hadn’t seen a movie of his in theaters for years. That movie was very nearly an art project, a true experience into hell that had an impressive style and some bold moves but ultimately didn’t thrill me as much as it did others that were welcoming Cage back into the fold. Now, just a little over a year later comes Color Out of Space, another strange foray into the unknown with Cage in the drivers seat but this time he’s in a vehicle that’s going someplace interesting.

Adapted from H. P. Lovecraft’s 1927 short story “The Colour Out of Space”, this isn’t the first time Lovecraft’s supernatural sci-fi has gotten the big screen treatment. Audiences first saw a version of it via the 1965 Boris Karloff schlocker Die, Monster, Die! and the one I remember fondly, The Curse from 1987 but for some reason within the last ten years it has become a hot property with two other versions floating around. For this retelling, the screenplay comes courtesy of Scarlett Amaris and director Richard Stanley and they’ve done a rather remarkable job updating Lovecraft’s story while maintaining much of his original set-up.  Though modernized, it’s quite reverential to Lovecraft and the nightmare he dreamt up.

The Gardner family has come to the tiny town of Arkham, Massachusetts for a change of pace. Raising llamas while trying to get his gardening business off the ground, Nathan (Cage, Valley Girl) is making the best out of a recent rough patch of setbacks. His wife Theresa (Joely Richardson, Endless Love) may have followed her husband from the city to the country but she hasn’t quite unplugged from her corporate life in doing so. Their children Lavinia (Madeleine Arthur, Big Eyes), Benny (Brendan Meyer), and Jack (Julian Hilliard, The Haunting of Hill House) are all adjusting in their own way with Lavinia opting to fully embrace her Wiccan ways and rituals now that she’s fully ensconced in nature’s beauty.

When Ward (Elliot Knight) a visiting water-surveyor enters the picture, he finds more than just a contaminated stream after a meteor crash lands on the Gardner’s property and begins to have a strange effect first on the flora and then on the family. At first, the changes are barely noticeable. New plants sprout up, unexplained phenomena increase in their occurrences. Then, those that drink from the water in the well begin to exhibit increasingly bizarre behavior until the extraterrestrial force that was contained within the meteor is fully unleashed, bringing with it an otherworldly terror. As the force gains power and begins to spread, the survivors have to evade a deceptive intelligence that aims to trick them into following it into darkness.

I was surprised at how effective Color Out of Space was for the majority of its run time. Largely, it’s a tense bit of entertainment with a heavy dose of the paranoid thriller and credit should be given to Aramis and Stanley for keeping things at a nice simmer for as long as they do. That’s quite a feat considering they have Cage in a role that is ostensibly the lead but who remains a bit in the background until the latter half of the film. You can see Stanley did his best to restrain Cage’s performance and I think editing had something to do with the finished product because Cage comes off quite well here. Sure, near the end he starts to whirl out of control but the film kinda calls for it and no one can swerve off a cliff quite like Nic Cage can. (I do wonder, however, if he was trying to emulate a certain impeached official when his character was having violent mood swings…I mean, it had to have been intentional, right?)

Along with Cage there’s a strong supporting cast with Arthur a real star in the making. There’s a worldly curiosity to her performance that makes for an intriguing character and a snappy rapport between all of the family members made me believe they all liked each other enough to withstand a good teasing. While his contributions are limited, Tommy Chong (Zootopia) is quite funny as a local off-the-grid stoner. It isn’t a stretch for Chong but he sells it with some flair. I continue to find Richardson a very underrated actress who has lived a bit in the shadow of her late sister (Natasha) and famous mother (Vanessa) throughout the years. She’s pretty great, especially when you consider just how far Stanley asks her to go in one scene.  Other actresses might have flinched but Richardson dives right in.

It’s interesting to note this is Stanley’s first feature film since he was famously fired from 1996’s remake of The Island of Dr. Moreau. The legendary tale of Stanley’s ouster from that movie has been recounted a number of times (including the fantastic documentary Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau, which is available on Amazon Prime) and judging by Stanley’s ferocious comeback he’s more than ready to get back to moviemaking without a lot of studio interference. Working with a budget around $12 million, Stanley and his visual effects crew have created an impressive looking world that is both a wonder to behold and frightening, often at the same time. There’s a particularly grotesque effect near the end of the film that should recharge the battery of any horror fan running low on gore fumes.

Though the film begins to lose some energy the further down the rabbit hole it goes and the characters start to make increasingly bad decisions, it’s absolutely one you should see if given the chance. I can see this one following a Mandy trajectory (though I found this far less intimidating and grimy) and finding an audience that responds to its mind-bending visuals, dynamic color palate, and shocking sequences of terror and violence. Even if it doesn’t all make sense all of the time, it’s more entertaining than I ever thought going in.

Movie Review ~ The Croods

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: After their cave is destroyed, a caveman family must trek through an unfamiliar fantastical world with the help of an inventive boy.

Stars: Nicolas Cage, Ryan Reynolds, Emma Stone, Catherine Keener, Clark Duke, Cloris Leachman

Director: Chris Sanders, Kirk DeMicco

Rated: PG

Running Length: 98 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  I decided against seeing The Croods in the theater because when it was released last March I didn’t feel like I could stomach another frenetic computer animated comedy…much less one that features a character voiced by Nicolas Cage (Valley Girl) at his most manic.  If the film hadn’t been nominated for an Oscar for Best Animated Feature, it’s highly likely I never would have seen this prehistoric family comedy…and that would have been my misfortune.

Surprisingly, this was a fast-paced but skillfully well balanced blend of comedy and adventure painted with a palette of bright colors and warm earth tones that ranks as one of the best animated films I’ve seen in recent years.  Though the plot and its developments are fairly familiar, they’re given a nice spit shine from screenwriters Chris Sanders, Kirk De Miccio, and Monty Python’s John Cleese.

Cage is the voice of a caveman daddy that is overprotective of his small clan, never letting his children out of his sight long enough for anything bad to happen to them though he’d just as soon his mother in law played by, who else, Cloris Leachman took a night walk all by herself.  With the ground shaking more often and the arrival of a boy (Ryan Reynolds, Turbo) that catches the eye of his there’s-gotta-be-something-better-than-this-cave daughter (Emma Stone, The Amazing Spider-Man) the family dynamic shifts just as the tectonic plates get moving.  Now the family that sticks together needs to dig in to survive and make it to higher ground.

Earning its PG rating for several scary sequences, this probably isn’t one to take very small children to but if your kid can handle it this is one you’ll probably find yourself responding positively to as well.  Even the adult humor doesn’t totally go over the heads of little ones, making it possible for tykes and adults to laugh at the same joke but for different reasons.

Overall, this was a pleasant surprise of a film and one that I’ve added to my collection for repeat viewings.  Now that computer generated films for families are becoming more standard and easy to produce (see the middling The Nut Job as an example) it’s nice to see the rare occurrence of a family friendly film that may not break new ground but manages to build a nice house on top of work that has come before it.

 

The Silver Bullet ~ The Croods

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Synopsis: The world’s very first prehistoric family goes on a road trip to an uncharted and fantastical world.

Release Date:  March 22, 2013

Thoughts:  I guess I kinda liked it better when it was called The Flintstones.  Well ok, the family of Neanderthals featured in The Croods may be a little pre-Flinstonian time but there’s a strange déjà vu feeling about this that doesn’t hold much appeal.  Even the vocal presence of Cage is annoying, proving that being heard and not seen can’t save his plummeting star status.  The one thing that may tip the scales on this one is a script with contirubtions from John Cleese and (aside from Cage) a nice voice cast with Ryan Reynolds, Emma Stone, Catherine Keener, and Cloris Leachman.