Alright! MOVIE DIARY 2018 is back! Sorry for not posting last week, but we’re here now, and that’s what matters. This week I’ve got the rest of the movies I’ve seen so far in 2018, and I’ve got my buddy Tony Wilson here to talk about one very good Nicolas Cage movie by comparing it to a not so good Nicolas Cage movie. Then later, I’ll talk about that same not so good Nicolas Cage movie! Keep on reading to find out if I thought it actually was good! (I didn’t.)
PLEASE NOTE THAT THERE ARE POSSIBLE SPOILERS IN THESE ENTRIES AND I AM GIVING A BIG BLANKET SPOILERS WARNING FOR ALL OF THEM HERE BECAUSE I DON’T WANT TO HAVE TO KEEP COMING UP WITH NEW WAYS TO SAY SPOILER WARNING FOR EACH MOVIE. ANYWAY POSSIBLE SPOILERS AHEAD, PLEASE WATCH OUT IF THAT’S THE KIND OF THING THAT UPSETS YOU. ALSO YES, I COPIED AND PASTED THIS SPOILER WARNING FROM LAST WEEK SHOUTOUT TO THE DETAIL ORIENTED MOVIE DIARY 2018 READERS OUT THERE.
Bringing Out The Dead (1999)
SPECIAL GUEST WRITER: TONY WILSON
Hey, it’s Halloween season! That means it’s time to dig into a ferociously lit, neon-drowned movie where a manic Nic Cage goes toe-to-toe with a series of unthinkable horrors, and ultimately has to end a life in order to save his own! No, not Mandy -- I’m talking about a good movie: Bringing Out the Dead! Despite being another Scorsese/Schrader slammer, Bringing Out the Dead has largely been forgotten to time. So much so that the film only exists for free streaming on Starz in stunning 4:3 full-frame, seemingly languishing in the Paramount home video licensing dungeon since the movie was released in 1999.
While it’s cute that Nicolas Cage is Open Source now and you can generate your own Cult Classic by plugging him into any tired collection of #vaporwave Tumblr gifs, I find myself upset at the mostly-harmless Mandy primarily for pushing Bringing Out the Dead further into obscurity. It certainly doesn’t help that the things Mandy’s easy-to-please-audience enjoys (shouting, colors) can be found ten fold in Bringing Out the Dead. The two films are both ~heavily stylized odysseys beyond the limits of sanity~ with the key difference being that Mandy loudly announces this about itself like a college kid showing off their cool new affectation, while Bringing Out the Dead trusts you to pick up it from... uh, well... the story? Like a movie!
Cage stars as Frank Pierce, a paramedic in Hell’s Kitchen in the early ‘90s who is unable to sleep as a result of a month-long streak of failing to save any lives. While the movie cleanly slots into some of my favorite subgenres: One Crazy Night (three nights for the price of one!), Fake Narcotics (Mandy does this too but I’m mad at it so it doesn’t count!), and Men Who Bark Like a Dog Apropos of Nothing (ruff! ruff!), it may be easiest to classify it as spiritual noir. There’s no murder to be solved, the great mystery is intrapersonal: how can Frank reconcile the guilt he feels for letting people die?
Surfing a wave of surreal misery through a three-night-long-single-night, and pulled from horrid encounter to even-more-horrid encounter by Van Morrison’s T.B. Sheets (the grossest song title in existence?), Frank is begging for a way out of his guilt-built purgatory. Every intolerable shift features the same repeat patients, including Noel (Marc Anthony, whose blood-flinging dreadlocks are...memorable) and the malodorous Mr. Oh (never has there been a more convincing ensemble performance of “Wow This Guy Smells” acting). But there’s no escape from limbo. Frank can’t even get himself fired, he’s going to have to earn his way out.
Fortune finally favors Frank when he’s able to stabilize a heart attack patient, Mr. Burke, to a comatose state. This also introduces Frank to Mr. Burke’s daughter, Mary (Patricia Arquette, yet again playing unhinged with a devastatingly talented quietness). But soon it’s clear that Frank has saved no one, he has only invited Mary and Mr. Burke into a purgatory of their own. Over the ensuing nights, we watch these characters deteriorate—physically, mentally, spiritually, morally. Frank even begins to have frequent visions of Rose, the teenage homeless girl who 100-yard-kicked off his string of being unable to save lives. It gets to the point where Frank envies the dead, God has intervened and allowed them to move on to whatever is next.
Speaking of which, this is an extremely Catholic movie. Where are the tip offs? Frank talking about God? Mary being named... uh... “Mary?” Sure, but these are surface level. Any idiot can wield easy Christian symbolism to build fake gravitas (I’m looking at you, Mandy!), what makes Bringing Out the Dead work so well is its confident and casual depiction of Catholic guilt in full effect. Frank’s failings aren’t shameful, they’re a cosmic abomination, and destructive/self-flagellating behavior will not set things right for him, it only cracks open the door for repentance. But any movie that understands—*really* understands—Catholicism must also understand that this is a load of horseshit. Frank’s cycle of grief is entirely of his own making, people live and people die, the rules of how Frank thinks he relates to that are entirely made up. As Rose’s ghost says to him in the end, “No one asked you to suffer, that was your idea.”
Mandy treads water for over an hour before fridging Mandy (from the title!) in order to motivate Cage’s probably-unnamed non-character to go do some kills. Bringing Out the Dead spends two hours dragging Nic Cage through the darkest tunnel of human sorrow to the heart-wrenching realization that the only way for him to move forward is give up needing to save lives, and to just let someone die. Frank pulls the plug on Mr. Burke, releasing all three involved parties from the torture of waiting. The movie indirectly converts the audience to Catholicism: once they’ve endured Frank’s gauntlet of anguish alongside him, they’re rewarded with freedom when Frank makes a sacrifice for them.
I’ve heard people defend Mandy by saying “you just got to give Nic Cage something to work with,” well, then please: watch any movie that does that. Bringing Out the Dead is frenetic, ethereal, drenched with style, and gives Cage an open stage to showcase his too-often-dismissed range. Yes, you even get your crazies! So why did I watch Mandy? Why did I willingly enter a movie I knew I wouldn’t enjoy, and force myself to endure all two flaccid hours of it? I can’t help but think, that no one asked me to suffer. That was my idea.
Tony Wilson is a videoman and writer whose most recent projects include the comics Dead Kids, The Legend of Jared, and Ladies Book Club, running now on dropout.tv.
Madeline’s Madeline (2018)
I don’t know, man, I don’t think I really liked this movie. My problem with it was the same sort of problem that I have with the kind of experimental theater that it uses as its backdrop. A barrage of “interesting” and “bold” choices that you can appreciate from a distance, but that didn’t really manage to connect with me. It’s the story of Madeline, a teen girl who’s experienced some unspecified trauma and mental problems, and her finding a kind of creative outlet through her experiences joining up with an experimental theatre group. There’s a lot of that viewpoints acting kind of bullshit, a strained relationship with her suffering and overbearing mom, and a creatively exploitative relationship with her manipulative theatre director, and it’s all pretty interesting to watch unfold, but so much of it just fell flat with me. I don’t know, it just felt like a lot of unsatisfying work to get to the core story of knowledge of self, empowerment, strained family relationships, etc etc that was underneath all the movement theatre and hazy memories.
Madeline’s Madeline avoided doing something I hate in movies, but then it veered into a different thing that I don’t really find all that interesting. One of my pet peeves with movies is when it seems clear that it was written as a play first and as a result it does barely anything cinematic, and Madeline’s Madeline thankfully avoids that — there are some very wild and interesting shots that specifically play in the medium of film — but it’s all in service of creating this experience where the point is to feel unsure about whether what’s being depicted on screen is unfolding the way it is actually unfolding in real life, which I just am never really into. I’m sure there are a few examples of movies that are about misleading its audience that I’m pretty fond of (I can’t think of any right now, but I’m sure they’re out there), but for whatever reason it’s just one of those things where if it falls flat for me I can’t imagine it ever working in any other context.
A totally satisfying movie that’s exactly what you expect it to be, nothing more, and nothing less, and I think in the end that made me like it a little more. John Cho is a single dad, raising his teenage daughter on his own after his wife dies at the end of a long battle with cancer. One night his daughter goes missing and he has to find her by conducting his own investigation into her life. The gimmick is that it’s all told via FaceTime phone screens and web cameras and TV news reports. It’s a pretty standard missing, possibly murdered girl mystery, but it’s also such a compelling performance from John Cho. It’s just nice to see him aging along in his roles comfortably, and this cautious father being pushed to the brink works so well. The mix of melancholy and humor of an ordinary, aging dad trying to comb through the life of his teenage daughter is expected (there’s an easy joke about him not knowing what Tumblr is that I feel like a mark for laughing at), but I wasn’t prepared to get hit so hard with John Cho hitting up his daughter’s friends to ask what was going on with her before she disappeared, and then finding out that his daughter just straight didn’t have any friends. Could you imagine? You go through your life thinking your teenage daughter is out there, hanging out with friends, having teenage drama, then you find out she doesn’t have any friends and she spends all her time driving out alone to some lake and taking emo selfies? I loved it, I loved watching this dad painfully finding out he’d lost touch with his daughter.
There are some twists and turns along the way that are fun, if not entirely surprising. John Cho and the audience both get taken for a ride through his entire investigation, and some of the fun of the movie comes in the later half where the movie turns into John Cho taking to the streets to fight internet commentators. I’m exaggerating, but Searching is an interesting look at the tragedy news cycle in the age of social media, particularly this idea of people attaching themselves to a tragedy as a promotion tool. There’s one of his daughter’s classmates who in her initial interview with John Cho, says she was never really good friends with his daughter and she didn’t know anything about her, then when the investigation starts becoming national news, she’s out there on TV interviews crying about how they were best friends, using this as an opportunity to market herself for attention/likes/viral fame/etc. There’s also the idea of using tragedy as a marketing platform. When the investigation has failed to turn up anything, most everyone except John Cho has decided that his daughter is probably dead, and some tech startup contacts him about live streaming rights to her funeral. It’s an excuse to keep with the gimmick of the movie and set up a video feed in a chapel, but to be honest it sounds totally believable that there would be some sort of hungry tech startup that specializes in live streaming funerals. In that respect, Searching is almost Verhoeven-esque in its look at the unsentimental selfishness of experiencing tragedy as content in the age of social media saturation.
Support The Girls (2018)
A totally delightful and heavy movie! Support The Girls is an honest and compassionate look at a day in the life of the staff of Double Whammies, a Hooters-esque restaurant in Texas. The movie follows Regina Hall’s Lisa, the manager of Double Whammies, as she does what managers do everyday — dealing with small crisis after small crisis and navigating interpersonal drama with her staff while we get hints of her personal life eroding because of her dedication to this place and these people. I’ve always said one of my favorite things in movies is watching people who are good at their jobs, and while Lisa is someone who is very good at her job, Support The Girls also manages to show the stress and the personal toll it takes on her. Lisa, and everyone else in this movie, is a person, and like any person, she’s not perfect.
One of the things that makes Lisa so interesting to me is that she’s not even trying to be perfect, she’s just trying to be a decent person who treats everyone fairly, and as a result you get to see all the hard work it takes to do just that. You get the sense that it’d be so easy for Lisa to just fly off the handle and take it out on her staff, or her customers, or the cook whose cousin tried to rob the restaurant safe, but she doesn’t, and it’s not because she’s a weak pushover — it’s because she believes in approaching all of these situations with compassion and understanding. It doesn’t always work out of course, because the world doesn’t work that way, because people are unpredictable, because sometimes people can be selfish, but you get the sense that Lisa shows up every day to do the work of being fair and understanding. It’s hard work, and for the most part it seems unrewarding. The movie begins with a shot of her crying alone in her car before the always cheerful Maci (Haley Lu Richardson) taps on her window to welcome her to another day of work. It shares a fun symmetry with the end of the movie where Maci spots some girl crying by her car off screen and she shouts out a message of love and support to this stranger. And maybe that’s where the reward is for Lisa, the idea that her staff really does seem to care about her and that she’s a guiding light to these young women, showing them that you can do these thankless and at times ridiculous jobs with grace and compassion. It’s still true that they all deserve better, but it does take strength to carry on every day like that, and that’s one of the best things about Support The Girls, its ability to give a real sense of dignity to these characters who would typically exist as a punchline in someone else’s movie.
I didn’t like it! I’m sorry, I’m sorry, it seems like everyone in my corner of the internet seems to be flipping their lids about this movie, but it just didn’t work for me. I had flashbacks of getting super pumped about the really stylish trailer for Beyond The Black Rainbow then actually going out to see it in a theater and then leaving feeling like I was swindled. Mandy comes at you with some very strong looks, atmosphere, moods, aesthetics, etc etc, but too often it felt like cool stuff for the sake of just having cool stuff to look at, which I didn’t have so much of a problem with until it became clear that all of this is there to stand in place of actually having a story with any kind of substance or originality. These cool elements are really just signifiers that are there to remind you about better movies, and it just came off as feeling really boring and hollow to me. Like, great, Panos Cosmatos wanted to make a heavy metal drug trip movie, and I can appreciate that, but did he have to make it so fucking boring? That scene where Mandy is kidnapped by the cult leader and he monologues at her for like twenty minutes before he shows her his dick and she laughs maniacally at his shitty music and his stupid dick went on for so long before you get to that nice payoff. I mean, again, there were some interesting visuals in there (Mandy’s face overlayed with Jeremiah’s face was an interesting effect), but none of that means anything when what’s happening is this boring. We get it, dude, we know you’re going to try to fuck her and make her listen to shitty folk music, we know how cults work, get to the part where she laughs at everything he cares about and makes him feel like a little worm already.
I was hoping the back half of the movie would turn out better but it didn’t. Here’s where the actual revenge and violence and entertainment are supposed to happen, surely! What we get is some low rent flash cartoon looking animation segments (meant to make you think “Whoa just like Heavy Metal (which, let’s be real, made very little sense and also kind of sucked),” and that’s about it) and a criminally underutilized Nicolas Cage getting into some stale fist fights with this crew of bad guys that look like the guys from Hellraiser but as bikers (these guys are actually cool, I had no problems with these guys, shoutout to the guy with a knife for a dick). There is one good part and it’s when the cult finally leaves Nicolas Cage behind and he breaks free of his bindings and he heads into the bathroom to clean himself up and he’s just screaming and losing his mind. That genuinely ruled, but from that point on it’s totally downhill. He arms himself with a bunch of weapons, including a really shiny cartoonish battle axe, straight off the cover of a fantasy novel or a van mural, but he barely uses them! There’s so much build up to him forging that sick axe and it almost immediately gets knocked out of his hands, presumably because something actually entertaining could have happened if you let Nicolas Cage hold onto a fantasy axe. The rest of his path of revenge is underwhelming. There’s a chainsaw fight, which sounds like it would be cool, but it fails to really capture how fucking insane it would be to watch two giant men try to hit each other with chainsaws. Cut off a chunk out of the main character or get out of here with this bullshit, the movie needed more dumb violence! Were you not aware that NICOLAS CAGE is your main character in your heavy metal drug trip fantasy revenge movie? Enough with the contrived Catholic imagery and let the movie be the bloody mess it needs to be. Sorry if you liked Mandy for some reason, I was just hoping for something way more “out there” than a tedious 14 year old’s idea of a drug trip.