3. Racing With The Moon – Ben’s Take

Film poster for 'Racing With The Moon'
Another fine film poster from the ‘Fuck it, montage of floating heads’ school of thought

Christ. Ok, well, we knew when we started this that there were going to be some bad films, it’s pretty much a trademark of Nic Cage that he’s great in good movies, but he’s even better in bad ones. That said, I didn’t think there’d be any films so shockingly dull and charmless as this one. Racing With The Moon was released in 1984 to, well, not an awful lot of fanfare or reception of any significant kind whatsoever. One of the most positive audience reviews for the film on Rotten Tomatoes reads ‘A personal favorite. Now, this is a movie I don’t mind seeing every now and then.’ which is quite possibly the most wishy-washy recommendation I’ve seen since I put ‘unlikely to spontaneously combust’ on my online dating profile (you’d have thought I wouldn’t need to say it, but I’ve been burnt before).

The film stars Sean Penn as Henry ‘Hopper’ Nash. A teenager living in small-town America in 1942. He, along with his erstwhile buddy Nicky (played by Cage, naturally), live under the shadow of the war overseas as they go through the last six weeks before they are drafted into the Marines. Naturally, their thoughts turn to pussy, with Nicky romancing his girlfriend Sally while Hopper finds himself fascinated by new-in-town Caddie.

The film starts with a young Sean Penn, as yet unburdened by liberal angst, strolling nonchalantly along some railroad tracks. Curiously you see him spending more time walking along railroad tracks than pavements, which leads us to conclude that he either believes himself to be a steam train or the town planner was drunk. The film quickly establishes that Hopper is a play-by-his-own-rules, march-to-the-beat-of-a-different-drum kind of guy, as he smokes while glowering at children (I really, really hope this wasn’t an attempt to establish him as a badass, because it’s pretty pathetic if so) and disrupts his piano lesson by playing jazz (the devil’s music!). He then leaves for work and, on the way, becomes momentarily entranced by the sight of a young woman (Caddie, played by Elizabeth McGovern) dancing on some grass to the music in her head. These were more innocent times, so rather than think ‘Oh God, I bet she has a Tumblr where she constantly posts pictures of fairies eject EJECT’ he’s captivated.

After that brief interlude we are introduced to Cage’s character, Nicky, as Hopper goes off to his part-time job stacking pins at the nearby bowling alley. Much as in his previous two movies, Cage seems to have a lot of luck with the ladies, as Nicky is a horndog, determined to fill his last six weeks of civilian life with as much action as possible. In a move so brazen it has to be seen to be believed, after Hopper starts a fight with a local Gatsby Boy (slang for a rich boy, and played by Quentin Glover, no less), Nicky goes to mop the blood of the Gatsby Boy off his girlfriend’s blouse, before giving up to just grab her boob and then walk off. We had to rewind it to check that we really did just see what we thought we saw.

One of the most noticable things about Cage’s performance in this film is that his character clearly wishes he was in a much more exciting movie. He constantly attempts to derail the plot into wacky hijinx instead of the dull, meandering coming-of-age drivel we’re mired in, as if he can turn the film into American Pie through sheer force of will. It starts when he convinces Hopper to pretend to go on a double date with him with the local hooker, Annie, to convince his girlfriend’s father there won’t be any unsupervised funny business. There’s clear set-ups for some kind of wacky, high school gross-out comedy malarky but in a foreshadowing of later life, Po-Faced Fun Vacuum Sean Penn drags the whore out of there as fast as possible, before asking her if she wants to go for an ice-cream sundae and offering her a flower. Don’t fall in love with a hooker son, that’s just chump stuff.

Having been rejected by the hooker (although she offered him a free ride before he ships out, not a bad consolation prize) he goes to the movies and again spots Caddie, this time working in the ticket kiosk. Entranced, and clearly following Cage’s lead from Valley Girl, he decides to stalk her, starting by leaving the flower that Annie rejected on her kiosk (because nothing says romance like a daisy you tried to give to a hooker). He follows this up the next night with possibly one of the worst thought-out romantic advances since the Siege of Troy. He pays a small child to give her another ratty, just-picked daisy while he stares at her from a nearby diner. Then, when she comes into the diner to get something to eat, he vaults the counter and pretends to be staff. However, in a wacky! comedic! misunderstanding! he doesn’t know what he’s doing and describes the pie on offer as ‘brown pie’ before giving her the whole thing as cutting a slice of pie is a strange and otherworldly ritual that requires mechanical competence beyond the ken of most mortal men.

I think things like this are supposed to be jokes, but it’s genuinely hard to tell as they’re delivered like a brick through a glass window. No finesse, no charm, no warmth, just ugly shards of glass in your face and distant sounds of screaming as you look down to see your vital life’s blood pooling in your cupped hands. The terrible comedy stalking continues as he follows her into a library and knocks down a shelf of books and in another wacky! comedic! misunderstanding! gets himself invited on a double date before realising he’s supposed to be dating Caddie’s friend. Despite the date ending in more horrifingly zany antics at a roller rink, including Hopper grabbing a small child and careening his way out of the front door on rollerskates, Caddie is suitably impressed with him and allows Hopper to take him on a date. Hopper makes the most of this by taking her to a condemned, abandoned old bar in the middle of nowhere.

Ok, right, look. So far we’ve got terrible failed advances on hookers, stalking, not knowing how to cut a damned pie, accidental rollerskating child abduction and now he’s taking a girl to a remote locale that might as well have a sign hanging out front saying ‘Sean Penn’s Fancy Funtime Rape Palace’. SEAN PENN YOU ARE BAD AT WOMEN. Romantic leads being absolutely fucking terrible at courting a lady seems to be something of a theme running through the cage oeuvre so far, with Cage stalking his girlfriend in Valley Girl, Matt Dillon alienating and driving his girlfriend into Cage’s arms in Rumble Fish and now this. It’s definitely something to take note of in future Cage movies, I sense the beginnings of a motif.

Despite Hopper’s rather creepy romantic techniques, Caddie is soon infatuated to the point where she bones him in the middle of a lake. Once their relationship is established, the film is free to begin careening wildly between wacky comedy hijinx and plodding, heavy-handed melodrama, which it does so with gay abandon. It starts with Cage getting drunk, demanding that the only black man in the film give him a giant tattoo of an eagle on his chest to scare the ‘Japs’ and attempting to race a steam train before turning round and telling Hopper he got his girlfriend pregnant and now he needs $150 to get her an abortion. Wow. Sheesh. That, uhh… kind of came out of nowhere… awkward…

So following on from that, once more Cage does his goddamned best to drag us out of this suffocating, nostalgia-drenched shitstain of a movie into a more interesting one, leading to the best sequence of the movie, albeit one that has absolutely no meaning or effect on the plot whatsoever. Nicky convinces Hopper to help him raise the money for the abortion by hustling a bunch of Navy seaman (I’m sorry, but I will never not snigger at that) at pool. This leads to a genuinely fun and entertaining sequence as Hopper finds himself in an increasingly tense pool match with a Navy seaman (tee hee hee oh god im sorry im kind of drunk right now its the only way i could get through this) until he eventually loses and he and Nicky escape from the pool hall in the middle of a brawl. However, as this film is determined to shift tone faster than you can keep up with, this leads immediately into our poorly-thought-out second act roadblock to Hopper and Caddie’s relationship.

You see, Hopper thinks that Caddie is actually a Gatsby Girl (rich, if you remember from earlier) when she’s actually just friends with one. This leads to Hopper asking Caddie if they can borrow the money for an abortion. Despite not ever showing one single, microscopic iota of a fuck that he cares whether or not she’s a Gatsby Girl, Caddie is convinced that Hopper is only with her because he thinks she’s rich, so she attempts to rob her rich friend to raise the money. So now they finally have the money, they take Sally off for a nice, cozy, back-alley abortion in some guy’s trailer in a genuinely unpleasant sequence. Afterwards, on their way home, somehow the whole stupid ‘Hopper thinks Caddie is rich but she isn’t even though he doesn’t give a fuck either way’ issue manages to drive a wedge between the two of them, with Caddie revealing she’s not actually rich and storming off before Hopper gives Nicky an admittedly well-deserved dressing-down for his lack of responsibility.

So now we’ve brought the characters to their lowest point so that they can work their way out of this hole and earn their redemption, right? Nope! Turns out there’s only 10 minutes of the movie left, so rather than have the characters discover and learn about themselves to grow as people and learn to resolve their problems, Hopper has a 5-minute chat with his sage, grave-digger father. After some wise words of advice, Hopper rekindles his friendship with Nicky, because they’re bros, and gets back together with Caddie by, I dunno, giving her a map and sitting in a tree and waiting for her. It’s not the best plan, but considering the reasons they fought earlier didn’t even fucking matter in the first place it’ll do.

And just like that, the day of Hopper and Nicky’s conscription into the Marines has arrived. Cue tearful goodbye scene at the train station, Caddie gives Hopper a picture of her for his wallet, they are in love, etc etc etc. And so Hopper and Nicky depart the movie and make their way off to the most brutal, violent and devastating war recorded in modern history driven by prejudice and xenophobia by… chasing down the train, jumping on board and hanging off it grinning like goofballs while happy, jaunty jazz music plays and credits roll. A suitably tonally incongruous ending for the film.

I kind of front-loaded the review in this respect, but this is a crappy, crappy film. The jokes fall flat, if indeed they are jokes at all, the tensions and drama are either unconvincing and forced or heavy-handed melodrama coming at us out of fucking nowhere. Possibly the worst thing about this film is Sean Penn’s performance. Sean Penn is a fucking black hole of charisma. All around him that is good or interesting is sucked into him to be reduced to grey fucking crushing dullness. Cage tries, god help him he tries so hard. There’s barely-noticeable traces of the edgy, twitchy charisma he would exude in later movies and his character is constantly trying to jump-start the plot into some kind of pathetic semblance of life, but sooner or later it comes down to Sean Penn’s stupid fucking mopey face. The film is mired in nostalgia for some antiquated ideal of 40’s small-town America to the point where it feels as suffocating as it must have done to the young men and women living there, desperate to find some kind of life in the big city. Overall I just cannot recommend this to anyone. Avoid, avoid, avoid.

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2. Rumble Fish – Ben’s Take

The movie poster for the film 'Rumble Fish'

Yes, hard as it is to believe, Matt Dillon was once considered a baby-faced prettyboy.

Next on our list is the 1983 film Rumble Fish. An adaptation of the novel by S. E. Hinton, and the first of three collaborations between Francis Ford Coppola and his nephew, Nicolas Cage. Opinion was mixed on the film at the time of its release, it currently stands at 71% on Rotten Tomatoes. Roger Ebert said of the film “This is a movie you are likely to hate, unless you can love it for its crazy, feverish charm.” but then he said of Hellraiser 2 “It is simply a series of ugly and bloody episodes strung together one after another like a demo tape by a perverted special-effects man” like that was a bad thing so I suspect we shall not be film bros.

As mentioned already by my compatriot Lauren, the film itself concerns the life of one Rusty James, played by Matt Dillon. You’ll know he’s called Rusty James because his name is spoken by characters in excess of 50 times throughout the movie. That averages out to more that once every two minutes. I honestly don’t understand what the point of this was. It got to the point where I was beginning to wonder if perhaps a Rusty James is a name for some kind of deviant sex act and all of Rusty James’ friends are running a long con on him, telling him all about the ‘cool’ nickname they gave him and giggling behind his back. Rusty James is a ne’er-do-well, a minor teenaged hoodlum in an anonymous American town who lives under the shadow of his elder brother, The Motorcycle Boy (played by a pre-oh-god-what-happened-to-your-face Mickey Rourke). Rusty James drinks, smokes, fights and screws his way through his dysfunctional life while The Motorcycle Boy ponders the sheer futility of it all.

I’ve never read the book, so I can’t say for sure how faithful an adaptation of the source material it is. I can, however, confidently state with 100% certainty that the book is a flawless, near-perfect, completely accurate in pitch and tone adaptation of the feeling you get while studying a book for GCSE English. It’s all there. The film starts off with a hook, that little spark of excitement to make you think that this time, this time it’s going to be different goddammit, you’re going to enjoy this and not sit there sullenly, forcing your way through the book, passing each word like a kidney stone. It opens at Benny’s, a local Billiards hall where Rusty James and his gang spend most of their time, and Lawrence Fishburne (credited as Larry Fishburne) enters as Midget, a character I am convinced is merely a manifestation of Rusty James’ inner psychoses, as not a single other person acknowledges him throughout the course of the movie (of course, this is the fake 50’s, so they could just be some racist motherfuckers). Midget tells Rusty James that a rival gang leader wants to kill him and Rusty James announces his intentions to fight him. Great! Drama! Action! Fisticuffs! The fight itself doesn’t disappoint either. It’s set in some seedy underground tunnel with the two gangs approaching each other, exuding faux machismo like the music video for Bad.

Then the fight starts and it’s full of bizarre wacky acrobatics, like an amnesiac time-traveller from the future told them all about Parkour and they decided to try and re-invent it through sheer force of will. The rival gang leader cheap shots Rusty James with a shard of glass, putting a big gash across his chest. Then, in a burst of cool, the triumphant return of The Motorcycle Boy. The Motorcycle Boy’s introduction is beyond cool. Upon seeing his brother get shanked, he revs his bike and lets it go, sending it careening into the gang leader, running him down then fucking front-flipping through the air and landing back on its wheels. That’s the kind of shit John Woo looks at and goes ‘nah, I’m not doing that, that’s just plain silly. And sorely lacking in doves’.

Unfortunately, much like sitting down with, say, Romeo and Juliet, where your English teacher tries to trick you into taking interest by telling you it’s full of duels, hatred, murder and suicide (oh God fuck you so much Mrs. Edwards), after the initial spike of excitement, things soon slow right the fuck down. The film turns into a sequence of scenes that all feel strangely disconnected from each other, like you’re studying one chapter a week and by the time it’s next week, you’ve already forgotten the last. It certainly doesn’t help maintain the excitement levels that Mickey Rourke’s acting style could be described not so much ‘laconic’ as ‘monged out of his fucking gourd on horse pills’. He doesn’t even raise his voice when his brother gets stabbed. There hasn’t been a performance this one-note since the guitar solo in I Wanna Be Sedated.

You’ll probably have noticed that I haven’t said much about Nicolas Cage so far. That’s because, as Lauren mentioned, this film is disappointingly light in Cage. Playing Smokey, Rusty James’ second-in-command, his purpose seems to be little more than to be less fucked-up than Rusty James and to steal his girlfriend. As such I began to ponder if the film could have had any contributory effect on the Cage Method. Surely a film so early in his career, and with a collaborator as influential as Francis Ford Coppola would leave an impression, right?

I started with the off-kilter style of the film. The film is deliberately shot in an unusual black-and-white style, seeming to bring to mind the old German Expressionist silent films with it’s stark contrasts and its at-times unsettling soundtrack, all screechy strings, tinkly notes and odd organic, industrial noises, like Silent Hill having sex with a fairground carousel. It was an unusual choice and perhaps this left an impression on a young Cage, it’s stark contrasts providing a backdrop to Cage’s stark, bombastic acting choices. The film also brings its artifice to the forefront, daring you to peek behind the curtain, much like Cage’s over-the-top style threatens to expose the hollow shell of his character until you realise it’s crazy all the way down. For example, Coppolla choses to render the city as some kind of blasted wasteland. Possibly taking lead from The Great Gatsby and its rolling fields of ash, the streets of this nameless US city are permanently carpeted in rolling billows of smoke. However, in several scenes you can pinpoint the exact place where the smoke machine or bomb has been placed due to all the smoke emerging from it, thus making the scene look like the world’s most boring apocalypse, or perhaps the most poorly-attended riot.

The theory’s tempting, but it’s hard to throw weight behind it as the film eventually drowns in its own symbolism. Much like writing ANOTHER GODDAMNED ESSAY on all THE GODDAMN SYMBOLISM IN KING LEAR (I HATE YOU MRS. EDWARDS, I HATE YOU SO GODDAMNED MUCH) the film begins hammering you over the head with its own motifs. A clock is visible in every scene while an eternally-croaky Tom Waits gives a monologue about running out of time, the whole film is in black-and-white apart from two fighting fish that The Motorcycle Boy becomes obsessed with, longing to free them from their captivity. OK COPPOLA, WE GET IT, TIME IS FUCKING SACRED AND MATT DILLON IS A FISH.

All in all, it’s hard to recommend Rumble Fish to all except the most ardent Cage-watchers. It’s extremely Cage-light and not the most enjoyable of viewing experiences. While Valley Girl provides insights into the future of Cage, Rumble Fish inspires little more than confusion and slowly watching the clock. In every scene. Tick Tock.

Rumble Fish (1983) – Lauren’s take

Ok kids, our latest piece of Cage is Rumble Fish, directed by Cage’s Uncle Frank (Coppola, duh).

Rumble Fish follows Rusty James, a hoodlum in Anytown, USA. His brother, the Motorcycle Boy, split town a few months back, his dad is an alcoholic and his mum ran out on the family a long time ago. Rusty James tries to live up to his older brothers reputation as the preeminent gang leader in town by fighting another gang leader, violating the treaty his older brother set up against rumbling between the gangs. Big bro returns, looks all pensive with his face acting and not much else happens. Seriously, such a let down.

The film does have its redeeming features, namely the fucking incredible cast: Matt Dillon is the protagonist and Micky Rourke is the Motorcycle Boy, and they are supported by Dennis Hopper as the alcoholic dad, Diane Lane as Rusty James’ girlfriend, Sofia Coppola as her kid sister and Cage, Laurence Fishburne and Chris Penn as Rusty James’ fellow gang members. Tom Waits is even in it, which made Adam squee. However, this amazing cast could not save me from my boredom. The film definitely has its moments, for instance the gang fight at the beginning of the film plays exactly like the music video for Bad, with a little Footloose thrown in for good measure. There are two kitties in the film, which gave me the happies. We also see Cage in an orgy with at least four girls (although I’m sure this is pretty standard for Cage), but outside these moments the movie really drags. For some reason we’re treated to an overuse of smoke machines (seriously, do all the streets need to look like a war zone?) and Rusty James is so unlikeable that it makes the film a chore to watch. And there’s not enough Cage, but with the film being so early in his career we begrudgingly put up with it. He does steal Rusty James’ girlfriend, which to be fair I think we all know who we’d pick given the choice between Matt Dillon and Nicolas Cage. 

So to summarise, Cage has sex with a bunch of chicks, has awesome hair and steals Rusty James’ girlfriend, just because he can.

Verdict – don’t bother, there’s not enough Cage in it to justify sitting through the movie. 

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