A couple of years ago it was reported that Nicolas Cage would play the title role in the rebooting of the Superman franchise. He didn’t get the part, the unknown Brandon Routh became the Man of Steel instead, but he didn’t give up on the idea of playing a superhero. He’s a big time comic book aficionado so he lobbied to star in Ghost Rider, Marvel comic’s story about Johnny Blaze, a daredevil motorcyclist who becomes a bounty hunter for the devil, and won the role from Johnny Depp who was originally slated to play the flame-headed vigilante.
Johnny Blaze is a complicated character. He sold his soul not for the usual reasons—power or wealth—but for the love. His father, and motorcycle mentor, was being consumed by cancer and had only days to live when one day the young Blaze was visited by a man who looked very much like Peter Fonda. The Easy Rider star, playing the Devil, offers Blaze a deal: his soul for a cure to his father’s illness. Of course when you deal with the Devil you don’t always get what you bargain for, as Blaze soon discovers.
The trade dooms him to an empty life, void of love and other worldly pleasures. Worse, when confronted with evil Johnny Blaze turns into the fiery Ghost Rider, a skeletal form covered in fire rather than flesh. That kind of thing can make relationships kind of dodgy, even if your love interest is an old flame that reenters your life years after you abandoned her.
I’d like to say that Cage “lights up the screen” or something witty like that and mean something more than his head is on fire for most of the movie, but there is something quite odd about this performance. He seems to be having fun with the part, but the movie has tone problems and most of them stem from Cage’s quirky performance.
Ghost Rider can’t quite make up its mind whether it wants to be a comedy, a romance or a supernatural action flick. It tries to be all three, but when the main character’s most noticeable trait is a flaming skull for a head it’s hard to take any of it seriously. And maybe we’re not meant to take it seriously, but with a better-realized story Ghost Rider may have caught fire.
The only thing worse than hearing the words, “We need to talk about our relationship,” is hearing other people actually talking endlessly about their relationships. Such is the tedium of “Last Night,” a talky new drama starring Keira Knightley and “Avatar’s” Sam Worthington.
Keira and Sam are a married couple living in a cool downtown NYC loft. She a freelance writer, he sells commercial real estate. She has the dreaded ex-Parisian boyfriend (Guillaume Canet), he has a flirty co-worker (Eva Mendes). When he leaves town for one night on business their commitment to one another will be challenged.
Usually I don’t mind talking head movies, especially when the heads doing the talking are as attractive as Knightley, Mendes, Worthington and Canet, but my patience was tested by this bunch of chatty, introspective, insecure basket-cases. There’s garrulous and then there’s the script for “Last Night.” It appears to simply be made up of a series of monologues about love, life and relationships, most of which begin with a line like, “Remind me why it didn’t work out between us.” Even worse are the clumsy attempts at metaphor. In one scene Knightley and Worthington are having a tense cell phone conversation. “This isn’t a very good connection,” she says as her phone and relationship go on the fritz. Deep. Not.
The occasional effective moment—the way Knightley guiltily presses ignore on an incoming call from her husband—are overshadowed by the endless inane chatter. In one scene there’s a cut-a-way to the dog and even he looks bored. You can imagine how the audience feels.
“The Place Beyond the Pines” is actually three stories bonded by blood and blood shed.
In the opening story Ryan Gosling plays Luke, a carnival sideshow motorcycle daredevil, who discovers he has a son from a one-night stand. He wants to take responsibility but the child’s mother Romina (Eva Mendes) has moved on. In a desperate attempt to make money Luke teams with Robin (Ben Mendelsohn) to stage a daring series of bank robberies. “Not since Hall and Oates has there been such a team,” Luke jokes.
He’s desperate and desperate people do unpredictable things which puts him in the way of (star of story number two) rookie cop Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper), setting up a situation that will change both their lives and see the sins of the fathers affect their children’s lives as well (that’s story three).
“The Place Beyond the Pines” is a sprawling movie. At almost two-and-a-half hours it takes its time laying out the multi-generational tale. Director and co-writer Derek (“Blue Valentine”) Cianfrance has created a character study disguised as a crime drama in which two flawed men—Luke and Avery—act as mirror images of one another. One allows himself to be brought into corruption, another fights against it. In the end both pay a price for their actions.
Ripe with slow-paced tension the movie carefully details how one chance encounter can send ripples throughout a person’s life, with reverberations felt by all those around. Each character’s existence is interconnected to a degree, and while the set-up is a predictable crossing of the paths, the movie doesn’t paint by numbers.
There are surprises along the way—I’ve tried to be careful in my synopsis not to give away any spoilers—but it is the performances that sell the material.
Gosling is in full-blown brooding mode—like Marlon Brando and Steve McQueen had a baby—but brings enough charm to Luke to engender sympathy from the audience even as he is seduced by the dark side of life.
Bradley Cooper takes another few baby steps away from the role that made him famous, Phil the philandering dentist of the “Hangover” movies. He hands in a performance that becomes richer as the story becomes darker and more complex.
The strongest performances, however, belong to two supporting characters. As Robin, the mechanic who leads Luke down the wrong path, Ben Mendelsohn is memorable. Delivering lines like, “I never liked guns, they’re vulgar,” in a soft country twang he makes the most of his few scenes.
We meet Dane DeHaan’s character Jason in the final third of the film and his portrayal of a teenager searching for some way to full the void in his life—it would be too much of a spoiler to explain why—is heartfelt and heartbreaking.
“The Place Behind the Pines” is thematically rich with good performances and any movie that showcases Ray Liotta in corrupt cop mode is OK by me.
By the time Nicolas Cage screeches, “Shoot him again! His soul is still dancing!” near the end of “Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans” his master class of extreme acting reaches its apex. This is the performance that Cage has been slowly working toward; a koo koo bananas performance that makes his demented work in “Knowing” look restrained. But you know what? It works.
Set in post Katrina New Orleans, Cage is Terence McDonagh a good, but wild cop who injures his back saving a drowning prisoner in a flooded jail. Soon he becomes addicted to pain killers, then coke, then anything that will ease his aching back. When he can no longer easily get drugs from the evidence room at work for him and his prostitute girlfriend (Eva Mendes) he goes off the deep end, falling into an abyss of sex, drugs and gambling. Throughout it all he works to solve the case of a family of murdered Senagalese immigrants. “Just because he likes to get high,” says Stevie Pruit (Val Kilmer), “doesn’t stop him being the po-lice.”
“Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans” doesn’t have the same operatic madness as Brian DePalma’s “Scarface,” it’s too down and dirty for that, but it does have an unhinged quality that makes it the most surprising film of the year. The police procedural portion of the story is fairly straightforward, but Cage’s acting—which is as big as the 44 Magnum he has permanently wedged in his belt—and director Werner Herzog’s surreal touches, like a hallucination scene complete with close-ups of iguanas, a Tom Jones soundtrack and a bug eyed Cage, make it a memorable experience.
Finding the tone of the film may be the most challenging part of finding enjoyment here. It’s gritty and silly, but unlike the film it is very loosely based on, Abel Ferarra’s cult classic “Bad Lieutenant,” it doesn’t take itself very seriously. That’s not apparent at first, but when Cage physically abuses an elderly woman, shrieking, “I’m trying to be courteous but I’m beginning to think that’s getting in the way of me being effective,” while coked out of his mind, it becomes obvious that this is a satire of bad cop movies like “Narc” or “Training Day.”
Seen as parody, the film’s richness and don’t-give-a-damn energy—even if the plot points don’t always add up—make it one of the more unusual and entertaining movies of the year.