Thursday, May 17, 2018

Crappy Nic Cage Movies that Aren't Actually Crappy #1: "Knowing"

This is the last of the “critically hated movies that are actually awesome” that I’m going to write about, and the first in my next trilogy of articles: Crappy Nic Cage Movies that Aren’t Actually Crappy (which will itself lead into a duo of articles about Martin Scorsese movies).

Something I'm doing a bit differently with most of these articles (especially these three) is that I am looking at old reviews, both from my own site and from Rotten Tomatoes. Most critics hated these movies, hence the title of the series, with this one clocking in at 33%. When writing reviews for new movies, I avoid reading any criticism, but when looking back at a film from years ago, I think it makes sense to see what others had to say at the time and respond to it.

*There will be massive SPOILERS for Knowing throughout the article.

The Actual End of the World

Last week, I wrote about The Book of Eli and its focus on religion in a post-apocalyptic setting. So it’s only natural that I would follow that up with Knowing, the Alex Proyas (The Crow, Dark City) film that focuses on religion in a pre-apocalyptic setting. What’s interesting about Knowing is that it appears as another bland Cage thriller. I’m sure some still see it that way, but I imagine few people went into this movie expecting it to end up confirming the book of Revelations from the Bible. And there’s no way anyone expected space angels to show up and transport children (and rabbits?) to a new Garden of Eden.

A lot of critics were taken aback by that, while others, such as Roger Ebert, a Proyas fanboy (he even did a commentary track for Dark City), were pleasantly surprised that the film followed through with the end of the world. I remember two things I liked about this movie the first time I watched it: the world ending and that plane crash sequence.

"Just sipping my whiskey in my inexplicably dilapidated work area staring at a bunch of numbers that represent every mass tragedy in the last fifty or so years."

Watching and writing about movies for years, I tend to find most movies predictable. When it comes to the end of the world in movies, it’s almost always already happened or its prevented. When the possibility that the world will end is brought up, the hero tends to save it. Not here, and, it seems odd to write this, I really dug that. (This reminds me of
Deep Impact, which had the balls that Armageddon lacked, and let the world end.)

It’s not just that the world goes up in literal flames at the end. The destruction of the world is relevant to the character development of Cage’s depressed professor. He tells a class at the beginning of the movie that he thinks, “shit just happens.” There is no God, no plan, no fate. Over the course of the film, he is shocked to learn that many things, namely disasters, seem to be pre-ordained. And by the end of the film, he has accepted this fact, and his own fate to die with the planet. But he dies in peace, knowing (that’s the title!) that his son will live on, and that he will see his dead wife soon.

The religious element can throw people off, but it doesn’t bother me. Knowing isn’t some pro-Christian movie. Much like The Book of Eli, Christianity was simply the religion they chose to use, most likely because it’s easily recognizable to an American audience, even if they aren’t devout.

Disaster Porn or Sincere Look at the Death that Comes with Destruction?

One of my typical complaints with big action movies is that the mass destruction rarely has consequences. Lately, superhero movies have addressed this head-on, but usually after the fact. The Avengers pretty much destroy an entire city in Age of Ultron, and no one seems to care; then in the next film they’re catching heat for it. Superman levels skyscrapers while fighting Zod in Man of Steel, who cares? Then the destruction is basis for the entire concept of Batman v. Superman: Blah Blah Justice. At some point destruction was okay as long as it seemed deathless. Then people complained about it, so they made it the plot of the sequels. That’s fine, but it’s not enough. If you want to destroy buildings and whatnot, you should have the guts to show people dying.

That makes it sound like I want to watch death for entertainment, but that’s not the case (even though I do laugh every time I see that dude hit the propeller in Titanic). If I want to watch death for entertainment, I’ll watch the John Wick movies. I want to see death in destruction scenes because that’s reality, and it adds a bit of emotion to an otherwise robotic, CG-created scene.

All of this is leading to the place crash scene in Knowing. Usually, a plane crashes and explodes, end scene. But in this movie, the plane crashes and Cage runs toward the wreckage. He encounters people on fire, screaming in agony. He’s able to help some, but most are unsavable. Now, is that not more emotionally resonant than a simple explosion with implied death? The subway sequence later in the movie is the same.

Was I entertained by those scenes? Absolutely. I remember buying this mainly because I wanted to watch the plane sequence again with my surround sound system to see if it was as effective at home as it was in the theater (it was). Perhaps it’s wrong that the film shows death while attempting to be entertaining. But I’m okay with it if it’s in service of the story.

Don’t Read Your Old Reviews When Revisiting a Movie

My biggest problem revisiting The Book of Eli is that it meant reading a review I wrote for it years ago. For Knowing, it was even worse, as this was one of the first movies I ever reviewed. I stick by, and still agree with, my main points about the plot and the disaster sequences, but I was way off in other departments.

First, I was extremely critical of Nicolas Cage and Rose Byrne. I sort of stick by my assessment of Byrne. She’s fine until she starts screaming her lines late in the film. But she was trying to match a screaming Cage, and no one can win that fight. As for Cage, my dismissal of his performance can be chalked up to my inexperience. I love Nic Cage, but in my inexperience, I felt obligated to bash him. Remember, this was 2009. We can all be loud and proud of our Cage-love now, but it was a different world back then. Watching Knowing again, Cage’s coma-like performance appears to be more of a choice than a lack of skill. He’s a widowed alcoholic who lost his faith; how else should be act?

My Favorite Nic Cage Moments
Knowing isn’t one of those notorious Cage movies that has dozens of YouTube videos of him freaking out, but that doesn’t me he’s normal in this movie. Here’s a list of observations and lines I found amusing regarding Cage’s performance and character.

Could you imagine having Cage as a professor. I would have stayed in college forever.

He watches a children’s show about tigers, and is so enthralled with it that he pours whiskey into a glass until it overflows. He then sets that glass down on the numbers page, and the ring it leaves leads him to discover the meaning behind the numbers. That is the best impetus to the main plot of a movie I have ever seen.

Cage’s work area or whatever it is looks like a house in a post-apocalyptic setting. Why? Did I miss something? I know it’s an old house, but the rest of the place looks relatively normal.

“I kind of freaked out on you yesterday.” How many times has Cage had to make that call in real life?

A flaming man runs past Cage. His response? “Hey! Hey!”

I know he’s going through some shit, but my God, he is a terrible father. The drinking is bad enough (he completely sleeps through his son getting up, getting ready, and going to school; and he even nearly sleeps past the time to pick him up from school. But the kicker for me was when he dropped off his son at his sister’s. At the door, he says, right in front of his son, “You said you’d take my hands.” Hey son, Daddy can’t deal with your shit right now. See ya later.

"Yeah, maybe this is an odd thing to do the day the world ends, but I need those coordinates!"

At one point, Cage is heating and scraping paint off an old door from a school. This is near the end of the movie! Rose Byrne’s response kind of sums up my thoughts: “Look at what you’re doing!”

“The caves won’t save us!”

Cage driving with a gun in his hand with said gun-hand on the wheel is a classic Cage image.

As Cage drives through the mob to his parents’ house he spots his friend standing on the sidewalk. They just share a look as Cage drives. Why not pick him up? I guess he wanted a family only death? “Hey buddy, enjoy the apocalypse! I’m off to Mom and Dad’s to die in a group hug!”

Is It Crappy?

I think I might be giving this movie too much credit, but I can’t deny how much I like it. I can see why people dismiss it or completely hate it. It definitely takes a left turn in the last third. But I love it when movies take left turns. And Ebert loved it, so how bad can it be? He put it in his top ten that year! That must be it: I’m on the same level as Ebert. All jokes aside, this movie works for me because I’ve revisited it twice now. In my original review, I included an update on my thoughts after watching it at home. There’s enough going on here that I find interesting and entertaining that I keep coming back to it. That makes it a special movie for me, and thus, not crappy at all.

Random Thoughts

Ebert was a Proyas fanboy, so I’m sure he would have loved Gods of Egypt. I was not a fan, but it was an interesting watch.

Speaking of which, you can always count on Proyas to make something interesting. I don’t see how you can claim any of his movies are boring. They have their faults, but this dude really commits to his work.

There's a Hemsworth in this! Liam, to be exact. I’m sure he’s there because Proyas is also Australian.

I love the plane sequence, despite its faults. It doesn't make sense for the cop to look behind Cage when the plane comes from the side (why not just have the cop look to his right?). Cage doesn't react when he basically reaches into burning jet fuel for ten seconds. Overall, very impressive sequence, especially since it appears to be a long take (though I’m sure there was plenty of edits in there).

Who is buying a Suicide Squad animated movie for $25? Never mind, I don't want to know.

This cannot be a coincidence (just like the numbers!). The week I wrote this, I found Knowing on 4K for sale at my local Wal-Mart in a new releases location. It's a steal at $16.96(Why that price? What do those numbers mean?), but I'll stick with my plain old blu ray. Update: it was gone the next week. Sold out, or moved to the bargain bin. I like to think it sold out...

I like that the kids keep getting pushed aside, but they're the most important. The adults can't do anything. There’s probably a larger theme and point there, but I feel like I’ve spent enough words on this movie for my lifetime.

Cage left his headlights on all night after the space angels took his son. No way that truck starts.

Cage’s parents have a very nice house for a priest. Perhaps his mom had some money, but who knows. What’s up with that?

Thursday, May 3, 2018

"The Book of Eli" - The Unofficial "Fallout" Movie with a Crazy Twist

This is another movie from that YouTube video about “critically hated movies that are actually awesome” (watch it here). When this movie showed up on the list, I was surprised. I didn’t remember The Book of Eli being hated. But after checking Rotten Tomatoes and seeing it at 49%, I realized that this divided critics. This is the first time I’ve revisited a movie I’ve already reviewed for this site, so it was interesting to see what I had to say, because I honestly had no idea what I wrote (this came out eight and a half year ago). I do remember enjoying it very much; I did buy it, after all.

You Should Only Read Reviews After You've Written Your Own. Even Then, It Might Not Be a Good Idea.

I remember The Book of Eli having a unique, nearly black and white look for a scorched Earth apocalypse and featuring some impressive, gory action sequences. (From here on out there will be major SPOILERS.) I also remember it for being that movie that reveals Denzel Washington has been blind the entire movie. It’s a crazy twist, but upon rewatching it holds up, for the most part. Some critics hated it; A. O. Scott called it “beyond absurd.” So that’s one reason why critics hated it. But I still didn’t understand the hatred or rather, the indifference of half of the critics.

The movie is very Christian, as the titular book is possibly the last Bible in existence. Was that why? Christian movies typically get destroyed by critics. Looking at a few negative reviews, that’s not the case exactly. Many claim the movie set out to have a powerful message but fell flat. They don’t say how exactly it fell flat, but I’m assuming since it was about the importance of religion they felt that it never delivered on the idea that the Bible can save humanity. I don’t think the end result of mass producing the Bible was the point. It was more about faith and struggling through a difficult journey in a destroyed world. But hey, different strokes and all that.

The other problem was the setting. Critics were dealing with apocalypse fatigue as The Road had been released a few months prior. A lot of critics mentioned how it provided nothing new to the tired genre. I thought it had an interesting look for the end of the world. More importantly, it felt like a fully realized world. Of course there’s going to be some similarities to other films, but I found it to be unique enough.

Many critics found it too serious and just a slog to get through. I don’t get this at all. There is a lot of action, and since most of it is filmed in long takes, you can actually tell what’s going on. And sure, there are a few too many slow motion moments that attempt to add emotional depth (the scene when Mila Kunis breaks down after nearly being raped, the moment when Denzel gets shot which seems to last five minutes), but I would hardly call that a slog. Another common complaint was that the film lacked humor. First off, just how funny is the apocalypse supposed to be? Still, there are quite a few moments of humor. For instance, the entire sequence with the cannibals (played to great comic effect by Michael Gambon and Frances de la Tour) was played for laughs.

I hate reading reviews (I know, the irony). For one thing, they make me question my own opinion about the film. I try to avoid them until after I’ve written my own review (this is actually the first time I read any reviews for this movie). Also, I get annoyed with a lot critics who offer plenty of complaints with no examples to back to them up, and they spend two thirds of the review just summarizing the film (Ed Koch’s review for The Atlantic was particularly annoying). I also hate reading my own reviews. But if I’m going to complain about other reviews, I should do the same with my original review.

Looking back, I made the same comparisons to The Road. I guess it was fresh in everyone’s memory, but I liked both films. Overall, I stand by my original review, though there are a few cringe-worthy elements. I called the action worthy of Michael Bay, and this was meant in a positive manner. To be fair, this was before he turned completely into the Transformers “what the fuck is going on?” action. I was referring to the scene in Bad Boys II where the camera travels through a house (through bullet holes and walls and whatnot), which happens during the house assault in The Book of Eli. Still, I should have compared it to Alfonso Cuaron’s Children of Men, especially since the two movies are similar beyond the style of action.

I use “though” way too much. I still do. I should really consult a thesaurus. Or perhaps I should stop making a point, only to give an example that disproves that point the very next sentence. I’ll probably just keep overusing “though,” though.

I’m more negative than I remembered. My memory of The Book of Eli was that it was pretty awesome. This was only my second year of reviewing movies, though. I probably thought that showering a movie with praise was amateurish. I do recall feeling like I had to point out something weak about a film even if I loved it. I still do that, but to a lesser degree.

Overall, I stand by my original review. I wish I didn’t try so hard to find weaknesses in a movie I thoroughly enjoyed, but oh well.

That Crazy Twist...

I didn’t revisit this movie just to compare reviews. I wanted to examine that blind twist in a bit more detail. I remember figuring out the twist before the reveal, but not much before. Watching it again, it should be obvious rather quickly, and perhaps it is to most people. There are plenty of clues throughout: he bumps into stuff in the first house he checks out, he has no reaction to a dead body and needs to feel the body’s feet to tell if there are shoes, he touches everything, he tells the bandit crew he can smell them from a mile away, he kicks the staircase at the cannibal house to tell where it is and uses his shotgun to find the door, and he claims he walks by faith, not by sight.

There is one big slip up with the blind twist. No, it’s not the fact that he can fight like a Jedi (I think we’re supposed to chalk that, and other unbelievable moments, up to God looking out for him. It’s the wetnap he trades Tom Waits for a battery charge. He mentions that it’s from KFC. Unless the wetnap had braille on it (I’ve never come across a wetnap like that), how could he possibly know where it was from. Not enough to ruin it for me, but it did bother me. Someone should have caught that.

I can see why people were annoyed with the twist, and while God watching over him may not be entirely clear, I believe that is the case. I believe it because after Gary Oldman shoots him, he talks so much about how God isn’t really protecting him after all.

The Unofficial Fallout Movie

Finally, the YouTube video mentions that this is as close to a Fallout movie as we are going to get. I hadn’t played Fallout when this came out, but now I love the franchise, and the video is exactly right. This movie is basically a prolonged quest in a Fallout game. Hell, there’s even a A Boy and His Dog poster in the movie, and that apocalyptic film is a well-known inspiration for Fallout. It’s possible this film is heavily influenced by the videogame series, and I think it’s better for it. In fact, watching it with that in mind made it more enjoyable for me. I noted all the similarities: apocalyptic setting (obviously), quiet, lone hero who can carry a lot of weapons and is proficient with all of them, can easily take out large groups of random bandits by himself, ends up traveling with a companion, is on a lengthy quest, stops by a town under the control of one man, and so on. If you’re a Fallout fan, watch this again with the series in mind.

I’m definitely glad I own this movie, and it’s the rare movie that ended up being very interesting to re-watch. Not just to look for blindness clues, but also to compare it to an awesome videogame franchise.

Random Thoughts

I don’t understand why the Hughes Brothers went separate ways after this. It didn’t set any box office records or anything, but it did okay.

I'm no fan of cats, so the beginning is fine with me. Adding insult to death by feeding a piece to a mouse. And critics said this was humorless!

Wetnaps for a battery charge. Strange transaction.

Most of the product placement for the film is covered by all the sunglasses that are all in great shape for the apocalypse. But there’s an odd Motorola placement when Oldman uses a megaphone. It just felt strange that he pulls up this megaphone prominently displaying a Motorola logo. I didn’t even know they made megaphones...hey, the placement worked!

On Oldman’s burn list: Oprah magazine, The Da Vinci Code, and The Diary of Anne Frank. What a monster, The Da Vinci Code is a fun read.

Two cat related events in first half hour...odd.

Really like the main theme. Atticus Ross’s first film score.

So they burned almost every Bible after the war. Okay. But everyone forgot Christianity? That's a bit much. I guess I can accept it for the purpose of the story, but it seems like it would need to be many more years after the war for this to have happened, not just thirty or so.

Overall, I like the idea of using the Bible for hope vs. control. Oldman calls it a weapon.

I get Oldman’s motivation is control and expanding beyond a single town, but why? I always wonder about that when a villain’s goal is simply power. I guess controlling more people would allow him to live better. I don't know. I guess there are plenty of real people who just want power…

How did Solara get out of the water shack?

Maybe the person who wasn't shot in the stomach should have been rowing the boat to Alcatraz the whole time…

Near the end in the row boat felt a bit too similar to Children of Men.

Great moustache, Malcolm McDowell!

Oldman telling Waits to be careful picking the lock of a book. What's it going to do, blow up?

Denzel’s been walking for thirty years. I looked it up. If he found the Bible in Bangor, Maine, that trip would be a little over 3,300 miles. If he walked just one mile a day, that should take over nine years. Sure, he’s blind, but he must have spent years doing a crazy zig-zag across America. Once again, this is all explained away by fate and whatnot. He was supposed to be where he was when he was so he could meet Solara so she could help him and be saved herself. But still, thirty years?!