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?

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