“I will no longer tolerate abuse. I deserve happiness!”
Horror comedy Renfield starts promisingly with a contemporary riff on Dracula’s familiar that refashions him as an absurd action superhero (who needs to consume bugs for his powers) protecting his vampire master whilst attending support groups for those stuck in co-dependent relationships. His origins are explained via a montage of recreated scenes from Tod Browning’s 1931 Dracula, with an arch Nicolas Cage stepping into Bela Lugosi’s cape. Nicholas Hoult works well as the beleaguered Renfield dreaming of freedom, though he perhaps leans too far into the everyman role. Cage naturally revels in an entirely evil character and theatrical overacting even through layers of prosthetics. Unfortunately this energy is paired with a hackneyed B-plot as Awkwafina’s traffic cop tries to take down a crime family to avenge her murdered father. It does little other than provide an excuse for Renfield to engage in cartoonish action sequences where unexpected gore is frequently a punchline in a similar way to The Boys. Director Chris McKay has comedy experience — he edited The Lego Movie and directed Lego Batman — but it tends to be the visual gags and physical humour that land. Renfield tries to breathe fresh life into the lore of Dracula, and it does so briefly, but this is a reanimated corpse rather than a resurrection.
“This is why I must trust my shamanic instincts as a thespian.”
It is a truth universally acknowledged that Nicolas Cage in possession of massive talent must be in want of a movie. Leaning into the speculation around his often-surprising career choices, Nicolas Cage plays a fictionalised version of himself, desperate for a hit as much to impress his daughter as for the money. This sets the tone of The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent, amusing rather than satirical, as it shifts to espionage and action involving a Mexican arms dealer and the CIA. There are two keys to its success: firstly, that Cage largely plays the role straight, though keenly aware of comedic timing and self-referential overacting; and secondly, Pedro Pascal’s awkward charm as the criminal who seems more interested in screenwriting. The most fun is had when the two actors play off one another, their characters equally anxious as they build a rapport. Although the rest of production is competent, were it not for the “Nick Cage” gimmick, this would not be a noteworthy film. Ultimately, it is a homage that will predominantly attract and entertain Cage fans (it is littered with references to his past films), and it comfortably rides the wave of goodwill from Cage’s recent strong performances.
“You’re a man who understands the mechanics of this world but not its appetites.”
The Woman In Red
Told over the course of a single night, Kill Chain follows toppling dominoes in a criminal underworld in which each killing begets further deadly consequences. The result is really a sequence of vignettes populated by hastily sketched characters with straightforward motivations. The strongest sequences are those that lean most heavily into noir tropes, which conveniently feature the best performances — Enrico Colantoni (Veronica Mars’ dad) as a sensitive old sniper, Annabelle Acosta as a crimson-clad femme fatale to Nicolas’ Cage’s hotel owner (in one of his more restrained performances). Scant world building makes these vignettes feel oddly disconnected even if a character will cross over from one to the next. It also considerably diminishes the attempt to explain the night’s events through an overly convenient conclusion that will leave viewers nonplussed. Enjoyable for specific atmospheric sequences, Kill Chain is easily forgettable entertainment: this is mechanically competent noir that fails to satiate the appetite.
“We aren’t here to make things perfect. The snowflakes are perfect. The stars are perfect. Not us. Not us! We are here to ruin ourselves and to break our hearts and love the wrong people and die.”
Moonstruck is considered a classic by some, perhaps through the verisimilitude with which John Patrick Shanley’s script presents Italian American relationships and flaunts the stereotypical romcom formula (its ridiculous ending notwithstanding). The film rests comfortably on Cher’s shoulders as the connecting glue between the story threads. Her unexpected attraction to her fiance’s brother is mirrored by parallel views of infidelity from differing perspectives. The offbeat performances in Nicolas Cage’s early career have been compared to jazz, slightly out of sync with his fellow actors in a way that conjures an unpredictable, dangerous energy around Ronny. Cher’s confidence is evident in allowing Cage to dominate his introductory scene in particular. The exploration of the older generation is gentler, with Olympia Dukakis’ sad, searching performance deservedly earning an Oscar. On the other hand, an older professor’s frequent dalliances with his students seems more predatory by modern standards. Ultimately this is a theme: the film remains pleasantly entertaining but time has eroded a sense of freshness it may have had when released.
“So no matter how many hits I take, I always find a way to come back. Because the only thing standing between this city and oblivion is me. There’s only one Spider-Man. And you’re looking at him.”
Taking Deadpool’s self-awareness and applying it to a family-friendly Spider-Man movie has produced not just the best animated film of 2018, but the most joyous Spider-man film to date (some have suggested it is the best, but I think Spider-man 2 retains its crown). This is beautiful big-budget animation, more minimalist than the meticulous detail of a Pixar movie but with a more stylised artistic vision too. The only slight distraction is the blurred edging used to create depth of field, which can feel distractingly like a misplaced stereoscopic image from film’s 3D release. The Lego Movie‘s Phil Lord and Chris Miller have their fingerprints all over, though they did not direct. The inspired dimensional merging draws in alternate Spider-man variants from other universes, including divergent art styles that couldn’t work in any other medium. That the resulting story structure, which features half a dozen origin stories in broad strokes, is not only coherent but deftly interwoven with wit and a strong through line is an impressive achievement. The plot is light, but even Kingpin as the antagonist has a clearly established reason behind his single-minded, destructive dimensional manipulation. Above all, Spider-man adaptations work best when earnest and emotional, both of which Into the Spider-verse delivers in spades and neither of which loses any potency in the transition to animation.
“You read the newspaper? Every day there’s people shooting each other. You know what I do when I see that? I look to see what guns they’re using, and I ask myself: why not my guns?”
Lord of War succeeds in portraying the ethical apathy and mercenary attitude that fuel the arms trade. Following the fortunes of an ambitious Ukrainian American entering this world ought to heighten the tension through personal stakes, but it unfolds in a fashion largely predictable to anyone familiar with crime drama. For such an extravagant character, Nicolas Cage’s performance is surprisingly muted, resulting in large swathes of the narrative being communicated in a flat voiceover monologue that lacks the energy of, say, The Wolf of Wall Street. Whilst its subject matter is important, in focusing on Yuri’s competing conscience and ambition, Lord of War fails to engage in the political complexity of this world, simply alluding to the powerful connections he has made. The film is bookended by its most powerful messages: first, an impressive opening sequence that follows a single bullet from a munitions factory all the way to its eventual use against an African child; and secondly, presented in passing with closing text, the bleak fact that the world’s five largest arms dealers are the five permanent members of the UN Security Council.
director: Warner Herzog
writer: William Finkelstein
starring: Nicolas Cage, Eva Mendes, Val Kilmer, Alvin “Xzibit” Joiner
running time: 122 mins
Shoot him again.
His soul is still dancing.
Bad Lieutenant (notably a prefix that only later attached to the project as a nod to the unrelated to 1992 film of the same name) marks one of Nicolas Cage’s strongest performances of recent years, yet the film itself becomes a parody as it lurches between moments of lucid inspiration and a chaotic mess.
Set in a post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans, the film opens with virtually no setup as we see good cop Terrance McDonagh [Nicolas Cage] injured as he attempts to rescue a drowning prisoner. The accident leaves him in permanent back pain, and he begins to supplement his pain management regime with narcotics. We follow his investigation of the murder of five Senegalese immigrants, while he struggles to balance his life with Frankie [Eva Mendes], his prostitute girlfriend, and mounting gambling debts. His actions gradually become more extreme as he becomes more frantic and delusional.
Herzog has a skill in drawing deranged performances from his leads, and Cage’s descent into amorality is incredibly compelling to view. His committed performance is very physical: his twisted gait and slumped shoulder conveying as much pain as his face. Unfortunately it rather peaks too early, with his fall complete by about halfway through. At this point Cage’s scenery-chewing insanity will alienate many viewers as ridiculous, although it was clearly a stylistic choice. The same will be true of the contrived closing which feels so bizarre I was convinced it was a dream sequence. There is surely an element of satire but it feels lost, and cheapens what came before.
The other problem is that the duller police procedural elements of the film are clearly not the focus, yet we return to the investigation too often, merely to push forward a story about which we do not care. Misplaced time stretches to the supporting cast: Val Kilmer as Terrence’s partner is largely unused while Big Fate [Xzibit] doesn’t make a particularly impressive villain, due more to the script than the performance. Of course matching a maniacal Cage would be a tall order. Mendes has more screen time and does adequately in evoking sympathy for an ultimately clichéd character.
Expect polarised reviews because ultimately the film is either a brave work of insane genius or a mediocre mess of interesting but undeveloped ideas. Unfortunately I am inclined towards the latter.
“Like every serial killer already knew, eventually fantasising doesn’t do it anymore.”
In a world where The Dark Knight has set a very firm benchmark against which all comicbook superhero films will be judged, Kick-Ass is something very, very different. From Wanted writer Mark Millar, it features similarly frenetic adrenaline junkie action, but its characters subvert all the genre stereotypes. It’s clear from the opening scene that we’re in for an unusual, wild ride.
Dave Lizewksi [Aaron Johnson] is an ordinary, unremarkable teenager who decides to become the world’s first real-life superhero. In a garish green costume he becomes an overnight internet sensation as Kick-Ass after saving a stranger in a fight. When an attempt to impress a girl lands him in trouble, he is saved by the father-daughter team of Big Daddy [Nicolas Cage] and Hit-Girl [Chloë Moretz]. He realises they are the “real deal”: well-trained, well-equipped vigilante killers on a mission of revenge to take down a drug-dealing crime boss.
Vaughn’s skill as a director, revealed to great effect in the sadly underrated Stardust, is grounding fantasy in realism. Here the distinction is starker, with exuberant violent excess brought suddenly crashing to the ground with injections of harsh reality. Kick-Ass straddles the fine line between glorification and parody of its comicbook roots, poking fun at their pomposity while also paying homage. It wears its influences on its sleeve from use of text boxes to a short comicbook flashback, beautifully animated in 3D.
The film rests on Aaron Johnson who is pitch-perfect as the would-be hero, a bumbling teenager yet utterly believable in his decision to reinvent himself, and his fear is clear as he discovers just how out of his depth he is. The supporting cast are all strong, with much of the best humour occurring in simpler scenes as Dave hangs out with his school friends, but it’s Chloe Moretz’s Hit-Girl that naturally stands out. It’s worth mentioning that Cage impresses here, exaggerated but not inane. The film’s exuberant energy is fuelled by bold, colourful cinematography and an evocative, pulsating soundtrack of pure escapist fantasy.
The dark humour and inventively visceral violence accent an intelligent script that explores modern culture and its relationship with the internet. When a TV news channel stops a live broadcast of extreme footage, everyone rushes to their computers to watch online instead. Unsurprisingly a foul-mouthed killer child has courted some controversy (major studios all passed so Vaughan reportedly raised finances independently to ensure creative freedom) and – when presented with a real girl rather than her comicbook counterpart – one has to question to what extent you can suspend morality purely because it’s stylised comicbook violence. These questions of exploitation are raised but never fully explored. Perhaps the audience is left to decide, but it feels more as though the film doesn’t care about the answer. This is most evident in Dave’s sudden transformation into a killer in the final confrontation, with scant inner conflict behind this major shift.
The few steps it overlooks are forgiveable in that it maintains its pace throughout, never wavering for a moment. Ultimately Vaughn does for comicbook films what he has done for the gangster and fantasy genres in the past, revitalising them with Layer Cake and Stardust. Kick-Ass is simply the most fun I’ve had in a cinema since Inglourious Basterds last year, and I’d be surprised if another comicbook film is able to outdo it this year.