Nicolas Cage Match: Pay the Ghost

Because Twitter is such an ephemeral thing, and I don’t have a wealth of followers (shameless plug: follow me on Twitter), I’m archiving my livetweet of the objectively terrible 2015 Nic Cage movie Pay the Ghost on my blog for posterity.

For anyone who hasn’t seen the movie or wants some context for my ramblings, this film’s the story of a guy who loses his son at a Halloween festival in New York, and then a year later pesters the cops about it while gradually uncovering the dark secret that every year the ghost of a woman who was burned as a witch abducts three children and traps them in the netherworld on the following Halloween.

It is not a good movie.

No joke, the character I referenced in that last tweet died while I was writing the tweet.

Same for that character too.

He was introduced back in the homeless den from way earlier in the movie.

Nic Cage Match: Twitter Edition

So I just saw Outcast, a 2014 period adventure movie starring Nicolas Cage and Hayden Christensen.  It was quite bad, and I tried out livetweeting the experience.  This is the result.

Nic Cage Match 2015

It’s time to do a roundup of the movies featuring Nicolas Cage that Rachael and I watched this past week and say something halfway intelligible about them.  If this ends up being a short post, then we’ll just explain it away as a phenomenon of Nicolas Cage’s presence in the universe.

Frozen Ground – Nic Cage stars as a police detective who’s two weeks away from leaving his job in homicide to go do some other ill defined thing when a lead on a series of unsolved murders in the Alaskan wilderness presents itself in the form of a young prostitute who reports that she was kidnapped and raped by a client.  It’s a very by-the-book serial killer drama that highlights all the most problematic elements of the genre (maintaining the narrative that sexual violence is only carried out by social aberrants, claiming to take issues of sexual violence seriously while simultaneously objectifying women, etc.) with nothing particularly outstanding about it.  Cage’s performance is very workmanlike, since he doesn’t really try to stand out from the rest of the cast.  Probably the most interesting thought I had while watching the movie is more related to Vanessa Hudgens than Nic Cage.  It occurred to me that it’s highly problematic that someone like Hudgens, who began her career as a child actor for Disney, has transitioned into taking roles that see her objectified and sexualized, and this is what we call a maturation of a young actress.

Snake Eyes – This is easily the most ’90s of the Cage movies we watched this week (probably because it was the only movie we watched that was produced in the ’90s).  Nic plays a crooked Atlantic City cop named Rick Santoro (Rachael and I just pretend it was actually Santorum, because that makes everything funnier) who becomes the lead investigator on the murder of a high profile government official at a boxing match.  It turns out that his best friend, played by Gary Sinise, who was head of the official’s security detail orchestrated the murder, and so Santoro is put in a position where he has to choose between loyalty to his friend (and a nice payout for keeping quiet) and pursuing the investigation that will eventually draw attention to himself and his own shady dealings.  Because this is the ’90s, Santoro makes the right choice and takes down his friend.  Of course, then there’s a weird twist where instead of stopping the story at the high point, the movie has an ending montage that shows Santoro’s eventual investigation and disgrace, losing his job and his family.  The only explanation I can give is the writers needed a way to culminate a romance between Cage and the female lead without having to deal with the complications of Cage’s character already being married.  Snake Eyes is an objectively bad story, but it does enough interesting cinematography (lots of long shots of extended scenes, filming scenes from the first person perspective of whichever character is recounting a flashback) and has such a fun performance from Cage that I couldn’t stop watching.  If you just want to see Nic Cage doing what he’s known for doing, you can pick a worse movie than Snake Eyes.

Joe – Rachael and I have sort of a soft spot for Southern Grotesque.  We both enjoyed reading Flannery O’Connor in college, and movies like Winter’s Bone have a certain irresistible pull about them.  I’d guess part of it is just the impulse to gawk at people with such alien lives, particularly when the alien nature is imbued through the status of extreme poverty in the community.  Joe is such a movie.  Nic plays the eponymous Joe, an ex-convict who’s also something of a pillar in his small rural community.  He’s a local employer who offers a job on his tree killing crew to anyone who asks, has a friendly relationship with other local businesses (who are represented here by a small country store, the local brothel, and the local gambling den), and generally looks out for the marginalized among an already marginal group.  Beyond that, he ends up becoming a mentor to a teenage boy who’s trying to find work to support his family in spite of his alcoholic father’s abuse.  It’s a very dark movie, and all of the characters are flawed in believable ways.  Unlike Frozen Ground, which also depicts a lot of highly sexist characters, Joe doesn’t implicitly endorse anyone’s more problematic behavior.  In a lot of ways this is clearly one of those Oscar bait style movies with a heavy premise and really dark plotting, but it honestly works really well for me.  Cage puts in an extremely serious performance that allows him to play with the manic rage that he’s so famous for, but in a way that’s more tortured than his typical characters.  Joe is someone who really does struggle with rage, and Cage sells the tension between Joe’s temptation to lose control and need to avoid getting himself in more trouble than he’s already in.

Moonstruck – This one was recommended by a friend who only explained that Nic Cage plays romantic lead opposite Cher, and it’s hilarious.  For the longest time, the only exposure I’d had to this movie was one scene where Cage’s character Johnny is flipping out over how his hand got cut off in a bread slicer.  Out of context, the scene can read extremely dramatic (maiming typically isn’t one of those things that automatically makes me think “hilarious”), but in context it really is incredibly funny.  The thing about Moonstruck is that it’s not just a romance; it’s a classical comedy of manners.  All of the story’s tension revolves around the fact that Loretta (Cher) has engaged herself to marry a man she doesn’t love, and while he’s away visiting his dying mother in Sicily, she meets her fiance’s brother and falls in love with him.  Because this is a movie about Italian-Americans living in New York City, the characters are very broadly sketched, and Cage’s character honestly isn’t the most out there (I’m inclined to go with the grandfather who has a small pack of pet dogs which he walks everywhere and lets urinate on fresh graves in churchyards).  The ending, which has the potential for a lot of drama as Johnny invites himself over to Loretta’s parents’ house for breakfast to confront his brother, ends in a remarkably neat way with all of the film’s plot threads being wrapped up without much conflict at all.  It has a fun performance by Cage back when he was in his twenties (which makes the romance between him and Cher’s character, who’s stated to be 37, a little weird in a, “I never expected a movie from the ’80s to make the guy significantly younger than the woman” way), and the rest of the cast is imminently watchable.

Racing with the Moon – When Nic Cage is on screen, this movie is watchable.  This is one of his earliest roles (he was twenty), so everything he does is full of the manic energy that became his signature style later on.  Honestly, when his character was around, I was interested in what was going on.  Unfortunately, because this movie’s primarily a serious romance, more than half of the story is devoted to a couple of extremely boring characters who basically make doe eyes at one another for a while and then sigh resignedly when their friend Nicky (no joke, his character’s name is Nicky) does something stupid that they have to help him get out of.  It’s nice to know that Cage was playing incredibly screwed up characters even at the beginning of his career; I wish this movie had been entirely about Nicky.  Also of note is that Cage shares billing with Sean Penn in this movie, which is pretty cool since one of them went on to become a well-respected actor with a reputation for playing seething rage-a-holics, and the other went on to be Nicolas Cage.

And finally, because it’s always fun, here’s a supercut of Nic Cage flipping out.

So I Just Saw Left Behind

I have something of a bizarre love for Nicolas Cage.  I know that most movies in which he has appeared in the last two decades are not particularly good films.  I know that despite showing a lot of promise as an actor when he was younger (he won an Oscar for Best Actor!), his performances vacillate wildly between absurdly manic (what his fans call “mega acting” because over acting is too diminutive a term) and painfully wooden.  There really isn’t a whole lot of nuance in between those two modes that I’ve seen in the Nic Cage movies I’ve watched (and with summer getting geared up, I’m ready for another round of Nicolas Cage Match).

Nonetheless, I love watching Nicolas Cage.  He’s someone who clearly has some talent in his chosen profession, but due to various personal reasons (I understand his finances are constantly a shambles) he ends up taking whatever silly role he’s offered in order to pay the bills.  I like to think of him as one of the most famous “working actors” in Hollywood (that’s in comparison to superstars who are paid and handle their finances well enough to be choosy in what roles they take).

Left Behind (2014) Poster

“What have I gotten myself into this time?” (Image credit: IMDb)

I’m including all this preface because it’s important to understand my opinion of Nicolas Cage now, a little over two years after I first heard that he was going to star in the Left Behind reboot.  It was learning of his part in that movie that piqued my interest in Nic Cage as a personality and led to me having seen far more of his movies than is strictly healthy.  Finally getting a chance to see this train wreck is a kind of culmination to an infatuation that’s been going on longer than my blog.  Everyone knew that Left Behind would be bad, and Nicolas Cage’s involvement only served to get my hopes up that it would also be entertaining.

Unfortunately, Cage doesn’t really make the movie more entertaining (we’ve rolled the dice and come up with a wooden, stoic Cage performance).  He’s playing Rayford Steele, an airline pilot who is supposed to be something of a silver fox in the Left Behind novels (partly due to the authors’ persistent delusion that their two protagonists are in any way interesting, likeable, or attractive), and perhaps the only good thing I can say about the performance is that Nic Cage really commits to portraying Rayford as the boring creep he actually is.

Beyond that, Left Behind is one of those movies that you go into expecting it to be bad, and you’re surprised to find it’s not horrible.  Then the disappointment sets in as the whole thing unfurls in a kind of unremarkable mediocrity that leaves you with pretty much nothing to say except that you saw it.

Then you remember that this is a movie built around one of the most persistent pieces of speculative fiction in American culture, and you think of a bunch of things you can say about the premise itself.

Let’s just put it out there: Left Behind is a story about the Rapture, and somehow it manages to assert repeatedly that the Rapture is ultimately a good thing (if you squint your eyes a bit and look at it sideways) without explaining why, exactly, that is.

Let’s back up for just a moment and discuss the Rapture as a concept.  The Rapture is a piece of pop theology that’s gained prominence in the last century as an explanation for all the weird visionary stuff that’s described in the Books of Daniel and Revelation in the Bible.  It’s a particularly popular concept in American evangelicalism and has taken hold of the popular culture conception of what Christianity’s apocalyptic literature is ultimately about, especially in the last forty or so years with the advent of books like Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth and Tim LaHaye & Jerry Jenkins’s Left Behind novel series.  The premise of the Rapture is that at an unspecified time, God will snatch up all faithful Christians to heaven (plus innocent children in some versions) and leave the rest of humanity to suffer as the world draws to an end under the malevolent guidance of the Antichrist, a world leader who’s working to carry out the will of Satan in the final years before Christ returns and establishes an eternal kingdom.

Left Behind is a movie that supposes what would happen in the hours immediately following the Rapture if it were to occur.

Besides Rayford’s perspective, which deals directly with the problems of managing such a crisis while in transit across the Atlantic Ocean, the movie also follows his college-age daughter Chloe, who is on the ground dealing with the sudden disappearance of her younger brother and her recently converted mother.  Chloe’s story is the far more interesting one, though it continually baffles me with its logical leaps and unsupported assumptions.  As she’s dealing with the sudden panic and looting that sets in once all the children and Christians vanish (panic I can understand, but looting?), Chloe works through the explanation of what’s happened (just accept the premise that this is a world where no one outside the circle of believing Christians has ever heard of the Rapture) and has a very intense one-sided argument with God about how this scenario really isn’t loving at all.  Chloe is our resident straw-atheist, and to the writers’ credit she actually does ask some important questions regarding why God would employ anything as insane as the Rapture to make themselves known.  Unfortunately, because this is a movie that’s really targeting true believers instead of trying to converse with skeptics, God and their advocates never offer a really satisfactory explanation, but instead browbeat Chloe into conversion through a series of emotional traumas that leave her asking for forgiveness as she’s about to jump off the top of a bridge because this world and its God suck.

To paraphrase George Carlin, this world’s God will kill your family, leave you to die violently in a torrent of pain, anguish, and hellfire along with all the other people who don’t believe in them, offer you no explanation for why all this stuff is happening other than vague platitudes that you deserve it, and then when you’re at the point of breaking swoop in to say that they love you.

The Rapture is some screwed up stuff, and Left Behind hangs on with both hands as it tries to make the concept believable.  It’s too bad that the source material isn’t so good, since there’s the possibility of a mediocre thriller buried in the whole mess.

Nicolas Cage Match

I have a very deep, dark secret.

I think Nic Cage is perhaps the most awesomest actor to ever live.

Where do I begin with this guy?  I suppose there’s the obvious fact that the internet loves him and wants to put his face on everything.  I can get behind that kind of absurdity.  There’s also the fact that he’s a huge comic book nerd (fun fact: his real name is Nicholas Coppola [yes, those Coppolas], but he took his screen name from the Marvel superhero Luke Cage) and has starred in such memorable films as Ghost Rider and… um…

Luke Cage

Luke Cage, although if you kind of squint your eyes, you start to see Nic Cage even here. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Actually, he hasn’t starred in any good superhero movies.

But don’t let that stop you from admiring his insanity.  Even when he’s appeared in other films, he’s always fun to watch.

Take, for example, the inimitable Vampire’s Kiss.  This movie’s one that when Rachael and I went to rent it at our video store, we had trouble finding it because we’d read that it was a very bad movie, but it was hilariously bad.  So naturally, we expected it to be in the drama or horror section.  No, our video store classified it as a comedy.  That’s like how Tommy Wiseau changed how he billed The Room after he realized that everyone was laughing at it.  You can laugh at Vampire’s Kiss, but it’s apparent while you’re watching that this was an attempt to make a serious film.  Unfortunately, that attempt fell flat on its face.  Fortunately, the film has Nic Cage at his cagiest, with fantastic scenes including a manic recitation of the entire alphabet, a frantic run through the streets of New York yelling, “I’m a vampire!” and the ingestion of a live cockroach.  It’s a mixed bag, because when it’s over you’ll see that the filmmakers were trying to do something interesting, but the execution’s just all around awful.

In contrast to the strangeness of Vampire’s Kiss, Nic Cage has been in more recent gems like Season of the Witch where he stars alongside Ron Perlman as ex-Crusaders who are tired of fighting holy wars, and just want to be left alone when they get forcibly recruited to escort a girl who’s accused of being a witch to a secluded monastery where an order of monks will decide what to do with her.  The plot’s nothing terribly exciting, but in contrast to Vampire’s Kiss where Nic’s giving it everything he’s got, here he’s as deadpan as possible.  My favorite scene is one where he’s sitting around a campfire with his companions telling the story of how he and his buddy Felson (Perlman) got recruited into the Crusades.  A priest promised them forgiveness of certain sins for so many years of service (like adultery, three years, or drunkenness, one year) and then Cage says with absolutely no inflection as the punchline to the story, “Then you better sign me up for ten.”

And then he smiles and nods like it was the best delivery he’s ever given.  And maybe in Cage-land, it is.

Although these two films are at more or less opposite ends of the Nic Cage spectrum, neither of them are the winners of the movie marathon that was Nicolas Cage Match (with a title like that, Rachael and I knew that we had to declare a winner in order for it to be legitimate).  For what it’s worth, Con Air is, objectively, the best Nicolas Cage movie ever made (which is saying something, because there are a lot of those; there might be more Nicolas Cage movies than there are plain old movies).  Besides being a legitimately good action movie, it also features Nic as a rather lovable ex-Army Ranger from Alabama (his Southern accent is fantastically awful!) who just wants to go home to see his wife and daughter.  His best line: “Put the bunny back in the box.”  I can’t stress enough how good this movie is.

And it seems like he’s on target to repeat this magic formula, since he’ll be playing Rayford Steele in the upcoming reboot of the Left Behind franchise.  He’s a guy!  On a plane!  With a disaster happening!

What’s not to love?