Review Bag V: Late December Gumbo
Sonny (2002) Nicholas Cage
Given the recent swell in attention to Cage and his most extreme performances, real or fictional, and my own somewhat morbid appreciation for such displays of commitment, it was impossible to turn down the opportunity of seeing his one and only work as a director. That film is Sonny, a low-budget yarn from 2002 starring a still-rising James Franco as a young, reluctant New Orleans gigolo yearning to escape the trade, and his domineering pimp mother, after his stint in the Army fell through. If needed, the performance could be best summarized exactly how you’d hope it would be with Cage directing: Franco doesn’t play Sonny; he plays Cage, or a compendium of Cage roles evenly spread through one scene after another. Between the hair, the costumes (including black leather jackets and police blue-and-blacks), and the camera angles, Franco IS Cage in seemingly every heavy dramatic role he appeared in between 1980 and 2000.
It’s all there in some form: naked, post-coital tantrums, volcanic arm flailing, TV-smashing and curtain ripping intimidation, table throwing frustration, head-pounding freakouts, and a climactic, drunken stumble through the red-light district. It isn’t wall-to-wall craziness, though. It’s fascinating to watch, as a peek into Cage’s larger artistic sensibility, and as a work in context of Cage’s later roles in the same decade, especially Bad Lieutenant. In fact, if Sonny does anything, it seems almost a marriage between Abel Ferrara’s depravity and Herzogian spontaneity, summarized best in a sequence where Franco, in cop-role play, services a client according to her perverse wishes, complete with a slowed-down shutter, low-end ambience, and Franco’s Keitel-esque expression of disgust. In the next scene, after tearing apart the room, Franco gets his just payment from the frugal housewife, who throws a crumpled bill at him only to watch it do a little loop-de-loop before landing short of the target. It’s the sort of unintentionally funny little moment that you can imagine Herzog seeing and thinking “That’s my man.” Late in the picture, Cage himself shows up as Acid Yellow, a gay pimp who wears a Liberace jacket, hangs out with Technicolor green and red poodles at the bar, and brandishes a cane sword. Cage says on the commentary that he was contractually obligated to appear in the film, and Acid Yellow was the smallest role he could give himself, but with today’s appreciation for his most bizarre roles, even this tiny one has more than enough gusto to deserve inclusion in the strange performances of Nicolas Cage.
That is the only real appeal of sitting through Sonny, the promise of Cage going off the deep end as a director and an actor. As drama itself, it can’t quite make the transitions between melodrama and something more affecting actually work; it’s setting and fidelity to that setting (see Brenda Blethyn’s deluxe Southern Belle treatment) keeps it locked firmly in a world of garish, greasy theatre; as messy and emotionally boring as its endlessly running mascara.
I haven’t yet mentioned the cinematography of Barry Markowitz, who did his best to light on what appeared to be a tight schedule; the broadly slapped shadows and sweaty, honey-brown tones do the most heavy lifting to set the film in 1981, making the image itself feel like a product of that time; nor Clint Mansell’s tasteful score (and Cage’s equally tasteful use of Bach among others), which are both notable. But this is mostly an “interesting failure,” one that goes off the rails later than expected and still fails to transcend that promise.
Alice In Wonderland (2010) Tim Burton
The less said about this, the better. Just that any film that makes me want to embrace Marxist theory as a prescient explanation for this sort of soulless, mass-produced, late-capitalist derived trash — pardon me — is kind of an evil film, indeed. There is not one drop of imagination in this garbage, remarkable considering the source material (though I have no great love for that either), resplendent to someone’s malformed taste in its faux-plastic coating of digital effects. Linda Woolverton’s script is a colossal bore, opting for yet another “Here Comes The Messiah Figure” outline that, well, you know what happens. You’ve seen every other movie these last few years where someone’s prophesied to come kill whatchamacallit with the whatsit. The only real surprises the film holds are: 1) to what variety will the Cockney accent be ignored in favour of other English accents, particularly where small talking animals are concerned, and 2) to what degree will the digitally animated March Hare’s (pictured above) insipid lunacy raise my blood pressure? Answers: not enough, and too much. I was hoping Burton would close the film with five minutes of break-dancing Mad Hatter (a la the 2003 remake of Zatoichi, to take another beloved cultural property that got fresh eyes and an unusual closing dance number), if only to take the film’s undercurrent of madness to its fullest end. No such luck. Alice’s madness isn’t that at all; just calculated, factory-made silliness. Yuck.
It Happened One Night (1934) Frank Capra
Watching this for the first time in about six years, I was struck by how easy it is to slip right into the rhythm of the film’s chemistry; Gable and Colbert really are electric. What also surprised me was how much I no longer care for Gable’s childish treatment of Colbert, or more specifically, how many times Capra and writer Robert Riskin go back to the same well regarding that dynamic (her ineptitude and helplessness on the run), and particularly the film’s uneasiness with how to balance out Colbert’s headstrong ways with some rather contrived bits of idiocy on her part. Oh yes, she gets him back at times, but the balance still feels rather one-sided, which perhaps is to be expected for 1934. Contrast that, though, with another classic from the same year, The Thin Man, which features a couple equally blessed in charm and wit, and better suited to complementing each other. And while in that film Nick Charles is indeed given an edge in competence of a sort, that superiority is solely relegated to matters of his detective profession, not general life skills. To go back to Capra, yes, I understand that Colbert being on the run and unable to take care of herself is part of the point, being a spoiled rich heiress and all; but I find the frequency with which her ineptitude is highlighted makes for less interesting comedy than the alternative and generates enough of a (fine, I’ll say it) sexist tone that makes this second viewing just a little bit tarnished. I guess ignorance really is bliss.
While I’m getting that out of the way, I’ll also mention how odd the final act seems, not just in comparison to what passes for romantic comedy today, but for how it kind of sucks the air out of the balloon, so to speak. On the one hand, I appreciate how Riskin’s script eschews an easy sentimental reunion once Gable sees Colbert driving away with her father; at the same time, the film seems to run out of gas at this point, the instant that they are separated for more than a day. Their last real scene together finishes 27 minutes before the film ends; the rest is a somewhat plodding walk to the finish line (save for a great scene with Gable and the father) where the moral and legal mechanics of reuniting them are closely detailed. And as much as I appreciate the efforts to build an airtight case for the leads to be reunited (this section seems as much a justification to moral watchdogs, given the constrains of Colbert’s marriage/remarriage), a lot of the tension drains flat out of the picture. I fear too much time passes between the leads’ last big scene together, and that wonderfully concise image of the bedroom sheet tumbling, to give that last shot all of the energy it needs.
Nevertheless, the film remains brilliantly witty and it’s one of Capra’s better balancing acts between comedy and drama; just witness the feather-light steering from clever banter to tender silence in the swamp scene; notable also is Capra’s trademark attention to the Depression, little details that are tossed in at just the right moment to keep the context relevant. And Joseph Walker’s cinematography is as lush as ever, achieving a noir-like intensity in the many nighttime scenes. Even if I’d give the edge to The Thin Man for its couple’s dynamics, this is still a fine film; as far as romantic comedies go — at least as vehicles for getting attractive people to fall in love with each other for our amusement — this is still the one to beat.