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Cruel Summer Cinema
By Chris Colcord
Fort Wayne Reader
It's been 35 years since Jaws introduced the summer movie phenomenon to American film goers, and no matter how enjoyable the film remains, you can't help but hate Steven Spielberg for what he's wrought. Summer has now become the dumping ground for bloated, lumbering "event" movies, would-be blockbusters that are aimed directly at the largest (and least discerning) demographic possible. The slate of summer films each year is dispiriting in its predictability — sequels, CGI action films, unwarranted remakes, frat boy comedies, too-hip computer cartoons, bickering romantic comedies.
For any reasonably literate film-goer, there's very little to choose from — in the summer, studios carpet-bomb theatre chains with so many prints of predicted hits that there's no room for the occasional independent/foreign film that looks mildly interesting. It sounds like a conundrum: the more screens that are available, the less chance there's a film you want to see. Rave Theatre, in Fort Wayne, has 18 screens and yet they only offer the usual 6-8 Hollywood rehashes, movies that you'll hate yourself for spending money on. The cool films get regulated to the art houses, and while I love Cinema Center, it's frustrating to behold the log jam of off-beat movies on their "Coming Attractions" list. The movies at Cinema Center get meted out one or two at a time, every two weeks, and by the time they've finally premiered you've already lost enthusiasm for going. Summer, which ought to be high tide for cinephiles, has instead become a desert.
The only big film that looks promising in the multiplexes for Summer 2010 is Inception, Christopher Nolan's sci-fi mind bender that debuts this week. After two months of horrifically-reviewed, formulaic movies (Grown Ups, The Last Airbender, Killers, Sex and the City 2), Nolan's follow-up to The Dark Knight looks like the only film that you can't figure out simply from watching the trailer. There's an almost desperate desire for anything adult or challenging in the film marketplace right now, and despite the impenetrable secrecy surrounding the film's storyline, Inception has been tracking strongly on most reliable box office predictors. It looks likely to be that rare thing in Hollywood — the commercial hit that actually asks its audience to think a little.
I liked Memento and Insomnia very much, and after a while I grudgingly got to appreciate The Dark Knight so I'll probably check out Inception during its initial week. Christopher Nolan's movies always look cool, and frankly it's a relief to see Leonardo DiCaprio escape from Martin Scorsese for a while. After Shutter Island you just wanted to grab the guy: Leo, it's time to start seeing other people again. It's a similar feeling I get when watching Johnny Depp — I know it's sacrilege to not like him, but I've about had it with those damned Tim Burton collaborations. I've never gotten them, not a one — maybe parts of Ed Wood, I suppose, but Alice? Charlie? Sweeney Todd? Sleepy Hollow? They all seemed a little too proud of their own eccentricities.
My favorite film actor is a guy who has a movie coming out this week as well, and his movie, unlike Inception, has no chance of being any good. The movie is The Sorcerer's Apprentice, directed by Jon Turtletaub, who directed the National Treasure series, and produced by Hollywood uber-schmuck Jerry Bruckheimer, the guy responsible for Top Gun, Pirates of the Caribbean, Gone in 60 Seconds, Con Air, The Rock, and numerous other cultural atrocities. Everything about the film screams awful, including the star, my hero, Nicolas Cage, who has made some legendarily bad summer crap movies, including three of the previously mentioned Bruckheimer offerings. (In fact, Cage has collaborated with Bruckheimer a total of seven times.) The trailer for The Sorcerer's Apprentice looks particularly bad, with CGI's dominating the screen and punishing loud sounds attacking from the soundtrack. Cage looks bad, Alfred Molina looks bad, the whole thing looks bad. And yes, I'm going.
Look, I know Daniel Day-Lewis is the best actor of this generation, but let's face it — the guy has made 10 movies in 21 years. I know, I know, craft, discipline, preparation, detail, the right director, etc., blah blah, but the truth is, I want a guy who's out there bringing it all the time. In the same time frame Cage has starred in 37 — count 'em — 37 feature films. Many of them terrible, some of them unforgivably so. In many of them you can almost see the price tags hanging from Cage himself. But even in these egregious, mercenary films, he's never boring. And that is always the actor's first task: Don't bore the audience. In a review of Malice, an acrid thriller from the 90's, The New Yorker critic Anthony Lane said that he wasn't sure Alec Baldwin could really act, but in the movie he did something better: he put on a show. And that's Nicolas Cage does. He puts on a show.
Cage won an Academy Award for Leaving Las Vegas in 1996, but I never made it through that film--after twenty joyless minutes, I gave up. The movie seemed all wrong to me, earnest and miserable, and it muted many of Cage's most identifiable charms. I enjoyed the slapstick in "Moonstruck" and Raising Arizona much better, and I thought his work in Lord of War (2005) was shockingly good. (The movie, a box office non-starter, deserves another look — sharp and cynical, a gun version of Thank You For Smoking). The terrible action/adventure movies from the 90's were hard to stomach, but even in those predictable genre things Cage was able to establish something offbeat with the audience, some weird rapport.
In additional to Turtletaub and Bruckheimer, Cage has worked with some of the most notorious hacks in Hollywood (Brett Ratner, Michael Bay, Joel Schumacher) but it should also be noted that no other movie star has worked with more noteworthy directors of this era than Cage. The Coen Brothers, David Lynch, Scorsese, Coppola, Brian DePalma, Ridley Scott, Barbet Schroeder, Spike Jonze, John Woo, Oliver Stone, Werner Herzog. . . it is an unusually deep and surprising list. And Cage's work with Herzog in Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call-New Orleans might be the most gifted stooging of his career. It's the kind of performance you can't take your eyes off — perverse, maniacal, loopy, insane. A glorious car-crash of a performance. I'm still not sure it's good, but I do know that I've watched it three times already, trying to make up my mind.