Review: ‘Dream Scenario,’ starring Nicolas Cage, Julianne Nicholson, Michael Cera, Tim Meadows, Dylan Gelula and Dylan Baker

November 9, 2023

by Carla Hay

Nicolas Cage in “Dream Scenario” (Photo by Jan Thijs/A24)

“Dream Scenario”

Directed by Kristoffer Borgli

Culture Representation: Taking place in unnamed U.S. cities, the sci-fi comedy/drama film “Dream Scenario” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans, Latinos, Asians and one Native American) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: An insecure college professor finds out that he’s appearing in the dreams of millions of people around the world, and he experiences the positives and negatives of fame. 

Culture Audience: “Dream Scenario” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of star Nicolas Cage and movies that take satirical looks at how public images and fame can be used and exploited.

Dylan Gelula, Michael Cera and Kate Berlant in “Dream Scenario” (Photo by Jan Thijs/A24)

“Dream Scenario” offers interesting ideas about fame and the power of perception versus reality. Although the ending of this satirical comedy/drama is a little too rushed, there’s enough in the movie to keep viewers guessing on what will happen next. It’s a big concept for “Dream Scenario,” which sometimes bites off more than it can chew on this concept.

Written and directed by Kristoffer Borgli, “Dream Scenario” had its world premiere at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival. “Dream Scenario” has some plot elements that were science fiction at the time this movie was filmed and released in the early 2020s, but some of the fictional technology shown in the movie could very well become a reality. That futuristic possibility is what holds this movie together in its intention to be provocative as well as entertaining, because some parts of “Dream Scenario” start to wear thin and almost fall apart.

The protagonist of “Dream Scenario” (which takes place in unnamed U.S. cities) is Paul Matthews (played by Nicolas Cage) a nerdy and insecure professor who teaches biology at the fictional Osler University. “Dream Scenario” was actually filmed in Toronto. Paul (who has a background in ocean biology) and his wife Janet (played by Julianne Nicholson) have been married for 15 years and have two teenage daughters: Hannah Matthews (played by Jessica Clement) is about 15 or 16, and Sophie Matthews (played by Lily Bird) is about 13 or 14.

One day, Sophie tells Paul that he was in one of her recent dreams, where he stood by while objects crashed from the sky into their swimming pool and Sophie floated in the air. The opening scene of “Dream Scenario” shows this particular dream. Paul doesn’t think too much about it, but he thinks it’s curious that Sophie says that Paul has been dreaming about him frequently. He also wonders out loud why he was just a passive bystander in the dream.

Later that day, Paul has lunch with a former graduate school classmate named Sheila Harper (played by Paula Boudreau), who tells Paul that she’s about to publish a research about ant intelligence or “antelligence” that will be published in a magazine called Nature. (Sheila’s research paper is titled “Antelligence Theory.”) The problem for Paul is that this research sounds a lot like his ideas that he talked about with Sheila when they were grad students, but she had no interest in those ideas at the time.

Paul is miffed and a little jealous that Sheila is now getting a research paper published for ideas that he thinks she “stole” from him. Sheila believes that she doesn’t have to give Paul any credit, because she genuinely developed an interest in the research paper’s topic. Their conversation has some tension. Paul and Sheila don’t seem interested in seeing each other again after this somewhat uncomfortable encounter.

Not too long after that lunch meeting, Paul and Janet go to see a play. After the play is over, another audience member sees Paul in the hallway and gives him a warm hello. Her name is Claire (played by Marnie McPhail), who used to date Paul years ago. It’s the first time that Janet has met Claire. Paul tells Janet right away that Claire is an ex-girlfriend.

Claire has something unusual to tell Paul: She has been dreaming about him. In her dreams, she is in danger while he is just a bystander observer. Claire invites Paul to lunch to discuss it further. During their lunch meeting, Claire says she writes for a pyschology online publication called New Inquiry, and she wants to do an article about her dreams about Paul, who willingly gives her permission to write about him.

Soon after this article is published, Paul starts getting hundreds of social media messages from strangers , who all say that Paul is in their dreams too. This is how Paul finds out that Claire’s article included a link to his social media accounts. Paul then becomes a media sensation, as the numbers of people who dream about him grow into the millions, including many people he knows, such as his students and friends. Paul is overwhelmed but flattered by all the attention.

One person who hasn’t been dreaming about Paul is Janet. When he asks Janet what her dream/fantasy about him would be, Janet says she sometimes has a fantasy that she is in danger somewhere, and Paul comes to her rescue, wearing a Halloween costume that Paul had years ago: a replica of the oversized suit that singer David Byrne wore in the Talking Heads’ 1984 concert documentary “Stop Making Sense.”

Paul’s fame attracts a mentally ill man named Tristan (played by Jim Armstrong), who breaks into the Matthews home at night while carrying a knife and threatening to kill everyone in the house. The intruder is apprehended without resistance. Paul and Janet later find out from an investigator that the intruder was having a “manic” episode and meant no harm. Still, the investigator advises Paul and Janet to beef up their security, such as getting alarms and learning self-defense.

Janet is worried about what Paul’s fame will do to him and their family, but Paul wants to cash in his fame while he still has it. He has a meeting with a trendy start-up marketing agency called Thoughts, which is led by Trent (played by Michael Cera) and Mary (played by Kate Berlant), who are smarmy entrepreneurs willing to say and do anything to make money. The executives at Thoughts initiated the contact with Paul, who is ignorant about marketing and advertising.

Paul has to go out of town to meet these executives for the first time at Thoughts headquarters. The first person he meets in the office is Molly (played by Dylan Gelula), the assistant of Trent and Mary. Molly sits in on the meeting. Paul tells Trent and Mary that the first thing he wants Thoughts to do for him is help Paul get a book deal. However, Trent and Mary are more interested in signing up Paul to do advertising for Sprite. Trent and Mary are eventually able to convince a reluctant Paul to go along with their plans.

“Dream Scenario” takes a few unexpected turns which are hit and miss for this story. It’s enough to say that whatever Paul does in people’s dreams greatly affect their perception of who he is in real life. Something changes when Paul finds out that Sheila is getting praise and media attention for her research paper. And then, things get ugly when people start having violent nightmares about Paul.

“Dream Scenario” cleverly lampoons the fickle nature of fame and how people think they “know” a celebrity they’ve never met. The movie features several sequences of how Paul appears to people in their dreams. Many of these sequences are amusing, but some are very menacing and are meant to be unsettling. When things start to go very wrong for Paul, he gets some sympathy and advice from Osler University dean Brett (played by Tim Meadows) and Matthews family friend Richard (played by Dylan Baker), but their friendship limits are tested as Paul’s life starts to get out of control.

Cage (who is one of the producers of “Dream Scenario”) gives a wide-ranging and very watchable performance, because Paul goes through some extreme experiences. “Dream Scenario” is a dark comedy that takes an “ordinary” person and puts that person in extraordinary circumstances. The supporting cast members are also quite good in their roles, but this movie rises or falls mainly on Cage’s talent of being realistically comedic in absurd situations. Some viewers might not like how the movie ends, but the last scene in the movie is entirely consistent with the bittersweet message that “Dream Scenario” is trying to convey about how people use reality and fantasy in their lives, for better or worse.

A24 will release “Dream Scenario” in select U.S. cinemas on November 10, 2023, with an expansion to more U.S. cinemas on November 22, 2023.

Review: ‘The Retirement Plan’ (2023), starring Nicolas Cage, Ashley Greene, Ron Perlman, Jackie Earle Haley, Grace Byers, Ernie Hudson and Lynn Whitfield

September 19, 2023

by Carla Hay

Nicolas Cage in “The Retirement Plan” (Photo courtesy of Falling Forward Films)

“The Retirement Plan” (2023)

Directed by Tim Brown

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in the Cayman Islands, the comedy action film “The Retirement Plan” has a white and African American cast of characters representing the working-class, and middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A seemingly mild-mannered retiree is really a former assassin for the U.S. government, and he has to rescue his granddaughter when she is kidnapped as part of an elaborate theft of a classified flash drive.

Culture Audience: “The Retirement Plan” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of star Nicolas Cage and Cage’s action movies that follow a familiar but tired formula.

Ronnie Hughes, Ashley Greene and Ron Perlman in “The Retirement Plan” (Photo courtesy of Falling Forward Films)

“The Retirement Plan” isn’t nearly as funny as it’s hyped up to be. Nicolas Cage portrays a world-weary ex-government assassin caught up in a hunt for a flash drive. He looks bored for at least half of this predictable action flick. Viewers will be bored too.

Written and directed by Tim Brown, “The Retirement Plan” certainly has a well-known cast that might attract viewers to this comedic action movie. However, the increasingly convoluted plot starts to wear thin, while the so-called jokes are very stale. If you think it’s hilarious to see Cage (or hs stunt double) running around in a bad wig in predictable chase and fight scenes, then “The Retirement Plan” might be your kind of movie.

“The Retirement Plan” has a story where several people are trying to get possession of the flash drive that has “powerful secrets” that can make people rich. The beginning of the movie shows three people stealing this flash drive and then getting shot at while making their getaway in a car. The three people are Ashley (played by Ashley Greene); her husband Jimmy (played by Jordan Johnson-Hinds); and Jimmy’s friend Mitch (played by Jerry Zavadlaw), who gets shot and dies as a result.

With Mitch dead, Ashley and Jimmy are now concerned for the safety of their daughter Sarah (played by Thalia Campbell), who’s about 11 or 12 years old. Jimmy tells Ashley to take Sarah to the Cayman Islands, where Ashley’s estranged, widower father Matt (played by Cage) is living as a retiree. “The Retirement Plan” was filmed on location in the Cayman Island. Jimmy is certain that no one will be looking for Ashley and Sarah in the Cayman Islands.

But there would be no “Retirement Plan” movie if Jimmy was right about Ashley and Sarah being safe in the Cayman Islands. A crime thug named Donnie (played by Jackie EarleHaley) is looking for the flash drive sends two of his goons—Bobo (played by Ron Perlman) and General (played by Ronnie Hughes)—to the Cayman Islands. Matt is about to get his life turned upside down.

Donnie has to answer to a crime boss named Hector Garcia (played by Grace Byers), who owns the flash drive and tells Donnie that Donnie has 24 hours to find the flash drive. And there are federal agents named Fitzsimmons (played by Joel David Moore) and Drisdale (played by Lynn Whitfield) who are also looking for the flash drive. Matt eventually finds out about the flash drive too. A running “joke” in the movie is that Matt is so behind-the-times, he keeps calling the flash drive a “disk.”

Ashley gets detained by Bobo and General on the way to the Cayman Islands, but Ashley anticipated this might happen and arranged for Sarah to take a separate plane trip by herself from Miami to the Cayman Islands. Sarah meets her grandfather Matt for the first time and has a lot of questions that he doesn’t really want to answer.

One thing that Sarah and Ashley eventually find out is that Matt is a former government assassin, who still has his combat skills. Predictably, Sarah gets kidnapped during this mess. Matt comes to the rescue and gets help from a pal named Joseph (played by Ernie Hudson), who also has combat skills. Many chase scenes and fight scenes ensue. The movie’s action scenes have slapstick tone that doesn’t work very well when the jokes in the movie fall flat. The acting performances in the movie are mostly unimpressive.

Most audiences already know that Cage has made a lot of bad movies in his career. “The Retirement Plan” isn’t the worst of Cage’s movies, because there are some moments in “The Retirement Plan” that can be considered entertaining to some viewers. However, these moments don’t add up to a completely enjoyable film. Instead on laughing at a lot of the intended comedy, many viewers will probably be cringing.

Falling Forward Films released “The Retirement Plan” in U.S. cinemas on September 15, 2023.

Review: ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ (2023), starring Nicolas Cage and Joel Kinnaman

August 9, 2023

by Carla Hay

Nicolas Cage and Joel Kinnaman in “Sympathy for the Devil” (Photo courtesy of RLJE Films)

“Sympathy for the Devil” (2023)

Directed by Yuval Adler

Culture Representation: Taking place in Nevada, the dark dramedy film “Sympathy for the Devil” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A factory worker gets kidnapped by a mysterious and angry stranger, who goes on a killing spree during the abduction.

Culture Audience: “Sympathy for the Devil” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of star Nicolas Cage and low-budget, offbeat thrillers that don’t try to pretend to be masterpieces.

Nicolas Cage in “Sympathy for the Devil” (Photo courtesy of RLJE Films)

“Sympathy for the Devil” is an intentionally dark and violent dramedy/satire that showcases Nicolas Cage’s penchant for playing weird and unhinged characters. Viewers should not expect a fully serious drama. The movie brings some laughs with the suspense.

Directed by Yuval Adler and written by Luke Paradise, “Sympathy for the Devil” has more to the story than just kidnapping and a murder spree. It’s also more than just a 90-minute film of Cage playing yet another bizarre and troubled soul. What will keep viewers interested is finding out why this kidnapping occurred in the first place. “Sympathy for the Devil” takes place over the course of one night, as a “real time” story.

For the most part, “Sympathy for the Devil” (which was filmed on location in Nevada) focuses on just two characters: The kidnapper and the kidnapping victim. The movie begins by showing a factory worker in his 40s named David Chamberlain (played by Joel Kinnaman) driving his son (played by Oliver McCallum) to the house of the son’s grandmother (played by Nancy Good), before David drives to the hospital where his wife Maggie is giving birth. David and Maggie have gone through heartbreak over their family: In the past, she was pregnant with a boy, but the pregnancy ended in a miscarriage. Maggie calls David on the phone more than once during the course of the story.

Just as David arrives in the hospital’s parking garage, a stranger (who has red hair that’s the same shade as a fire engine) gets in David’s car with a gun and orders David to “pick a card,” as in to name any type of playing card. The stranger (played by Cage) has no name in the movie. He’s only called The Passenger in the movie’s end credits, so that’s how he’ll be identified in this review. David thinks it’s a robbery and tells The Passenger to take anything he wants, but The Passenger replies, “I didn’t say I was robbing you. I said, ‘Pick a card.””

David choose the spade. The Passenger smirks, “I knew you were going to pick that card.” David is in shock, but he enough of his wits about him to ask this stranger to let David go, because David’s wife is about to give birth. The Passenger is unmoved. “It’s a family emergency,” David pleads when requesting to be let go so he can be with his wife. The Passenger snarls with a creepy grin on his face: “I’m your family emergency now.”

Because this is a Cage movie, expect to see his villain character act completely unpredictable and off the rails. Viewers already can tell from the beginning that this kidnapper is going to commit murder. “Sympathy for the Devil” doesn’t hold back on how bizarre The Passenger gets in his monologue rants and loose cannon antics. Some of it is hilarious—not the heinous murders, but the things that The Passenger says and does when he’s not killing someone.

Most of “Sympathy for the Devil” is about The Passenger ordering David to go to certain places. First, he tells David to go to Boulder City. On the drive there, The Passenger asks David where his hometown is, and David says he’s originally from Tucson, Arizona. The Passenger says he’s originally from Boston and asks David if he’s ever been to Boston. David said he was there only once, briefly, during a visit years ago.

The Passenger then tells David that his mother has lung cancer. Hoping to find a way to bond with this kidnapper, David tells his own story about his mother. David says his mother was religious but his father was an abusive drunk. The Passenger scoffs, “That plea for sympathy is beneath you.”

During this increasingly demented kidnapping, David and The Passenger encounter some more people, but the number of people in this movie’s cast is relatively small. The Passenger is very confrontational with almost everyone who has the misfortune of talking to him. He also loses his temper easily.

While driving on the road, David sees a patrol officer (played by Cameron Lee Price) parked in a car, waiting to catch speeders. David deliberately goes over the speed limit and gets pulled over by the cop for speeding. The Passenger is very argumentative with the cop. You can imagine what happens next.

The Passenger also mentions the word “devil” or “Satan” in some of his rants. There might be moments in the movie where viewers could wonder if “Sympathy for the Devil” is a supernatural story, but it’s not. The Passenger is a human being, not Satan or an evil spirit. There’s also no “it was all just a nightmare” part of the story either.

Things start to get really insane when David and The Passenger go inside a nearly deserted diner. For a while, the only people in the diner are David, The Passenger, a trucker customer (played by Rich Hopkins), a waitress (played by Alexis Zollicoffer) and the diner’s owner/cook (played by Burns Burns). The diner has a jukebox. At one point, The Passenger activates the jukebox, which plays Alicia Bridges’ 1978 hit “I Love the Nightlife (Disco Round).” The Passenger sings along to the song in one of the funniest scenes in the movie.

Does David try to escape? Of course, he does. But there would be no “Sympathy for the Devil” movie if escaping were easy for David. For most of this ordeal, David (and viewers) will be thinking about The Passenger: “Who is this sadistic degenerate? What does he want from David? Why is this kidnapping even taking place?” The motive for this kidnapping unfolds in layers.

Kinnaman’s portrayal of David doesn’t go beyond “terrified victim” until a certain point in the movie when David shows he’s a lot more cunning than he first appears to be. Coincidence or not, in the 2020 movie “The Secrets We Keep” (which Adler directed and co-wrote), Kinnaman played another factory employee kidnapped by someone who seems to know a lot about the kidnapped character. Cage is doing what Cage likes to do in these types of films: ham it up in a way that’s intended to make people laugh. Some people might find this style of acting to be very annoying, but in the context of how strange The Passenger is, it actually works well enough for this movie.

“Sympathy for the Devil” is very gritty and grungy, but there’s also a level of comedy and sly commentary on how people make judgments based on outward appearances. The movie does a very good job of maintaining viewer curiosity to find out why The Passenger targeted David for this kidnapping. When motives and secrets are revealed, they will make viewers question their opinions of what they saw previously in the story. And that’s why “Sympathy for the Devil” is slightly better than the average “killing spree” movie.

RLJE Films released “Sympathy for the Devil” in select U.S. cinemas on July 28, 2023.

Review: ‘Renfield’ (2023), starring Nicholas Hoult and Nicolas Cage

April 11, 2023

by Carla Hay

Nicolas Cage and Nicholas Hoult in “Renfield” (Photo by Michele K. Short/Universal Pictures)

“Renfield” (2023)

Directed by Chris McKay

Culture Representation: Taking place in New Orleans, the horror comedy film “Renfield” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some Asians, African Americans and Latinos) representing the working-class, middle-class and criminal underground.

Culture Clash: A real-estate attorney, who has been forced to become an indentured servant procuring victims for vampire Count Dracula, finds himself involved in various hijinks with Dracula and a drug-smuggling gang. 

Culture Audience: “Renfield” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of star Nicolas Cage and over-the-top comedies about vampires.

Pictured in front: Adrian Martinez and Awkwafina in “Renfield” (Photo by Michele K. Short/Universal Pictures)

Nicolas Cage’s campy performance as Dracula is the best thing about “Renfield,” a horror comedy that sometimes gets a little too one-note and manic for its own good. The movie doesn’t take itself seriously, and neither should viewers. It’s not a movie for anyone who’s overly sensitive to graphic violence on screen, because there’s plenty of blood and gore, in case anyone forgot that “Renfield” is a vampire movie.

Directed by Chris McKay and written by Ryan Ridley, “Renfield” has a very simple concept that frequently gets muddled with the movie’s overreach in trying to do too much action and comedy at once. “Renfield” is supposed to be a satire of support-group culture and how therapy of co-dependence could be applied to someone who is a “familiar” (a servant of a vampire) trying to get out of a toxic relationship with a blood-sucking employer. However, there are subplots that get tangled in the mix that could have been presented in a more straightforward way.

In “Renfield,” Robert Montague Renfield (played by Nicholas Hoult) is a native of Great Britain who is living in the United States and working as a real-estate attorney. That’s how he met Dracula (played by Cage), who forced Renfield (a bachelor with no children) to become Dracula’s familiar. Renfield is tasked with finding murder victims for Dracula and cleaning up Dracula’s messes.

Dracula and Renfield move from city to city to avoid getting caught. In the beginning of “Renfield” (which has frequent narration by Renfield), Dracula and Renfield have settled in New Orleans. Most of “Renfield” is about a madcap feud involving Dracula, Renfield, mobster criminals and police. A drug-smuggling cartel, led by Bellafrancesca Lobo (played by Shohreh Aghdashloo, doing her best Mafia queen impersonation) ends up blaming Renfield for a stolen supply of drugs worth millions.

Meanwhile, Renfield attends a support group for people who are in unhealthy co-dependent relationships. The scenes with the support group meetings are hit and miss. A running gag that gets old quickly is that Renfield shows up and interrupts the meetings at very inconvenient times, usually when someone is in the middle of sharing their emotional pain with the group.

Also hit and miss is the subplot about budding romance between Renfield and a wisecracking New Orleans police officer named Rebecca Quincy (played by Awkwafina), who is trying to prove herself as worthy of her police badge, because her deceased father was a New Orleans police captain who was a well-respected local legend. Rebecca’s serious-minded sister Kate (played by Camille Chen) is an agent for the FBI. Rebecca and Kate have a sibling rivalry that is clumsily shoehorned into the story and is ultimately not essential to the overall plot.

Rebecca and Kate are the only ones who are living in a parent’s shadow. Bellafrancesca has made her bungling son Tedward “Teddy” Lobo (played by Ben Schwartz) her second-in-command. And he’s desperate to impress his mother, but he often fails miserably, because he’s such a buffoon. You can easily predict who will be in the movie’s biggest showdown toward the end.

Character development is not the strong point of “Renfield.” The main characters don’t have much depth, while the supporting characters aren’t too interesting and just exist in the movie to react to the antics or give a few unremarkable quips. Rebecca’s police supervisor Chris Marcos (played by Adrian Martinez) could have been a hilarious character, but he doesn’t get enough screen time to have an impact. The leader of the support group is a sensitive counselor named Mark (played by Brandon Scott Jones), who is written and portrayed as a character to be ridiculed for being a counselor who is immersed in political correctness.

There aren’t very many surprises in “Renfield,” but the movie can deliver some laughs for people who might like this type of entertainment. Hoult plays the “straight man” to Cage’s wacky Dracula. The movie has some dull reptition, but the overall pace of the movie is energetic. Renfield is a mixture of neurotic and empathetic, and Hoult is perfectly fine in this role, but the filmmakers made the mistake of naming the movie after this character. The real star of the show is unquestionably Dracula.

Universal Pictures will release “Renfield” in U.S. cinemas on April 14, 2023.

Review: ‘The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent,’ starring Nicolas Cage

April 19, 2022

by Carla Hay

Pedro Pascal and Nicolas Cage in “The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent” (Photo by Katalin Vermes/Lionsgate)

“The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent”

Directed by Tom Gormican

Some language in Spanish with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in Los Angeles and Mallorca, Spain, the action comedy “The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent” features a cast of white and Latino characters (with a few African Americans) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: Desperate for money, famous actor Nick Cage agrees to a $1 million fee to appear at a wealthy superfan’s birthday party in Mallorca, where he reluctantly gets in the middle of an international espionage case. 

Culture Audience: “The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent” will appeal primarily to fans of star Nicolas Cage and comedies that are satires of real people.

Nicolas Cage, Lily Sheen and Sharon Horgan in “The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent” (Photo by Katalin Vermes/Lionsgate)

It’s not the comedy masterpiece that some people have been hyping it up to be, but “The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent” has plenty of hilarious moments in spoofing Nicolas Cage’s public persona and action films. The movie has some genuinely inspired scenes before the film’s last 20 minutes devolve into stereotypical formulas seen in many other comedic spy capers. “The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent” is also an above-average buddy comedy, with touches of family sentimentality to balance out some of the wackiness.

Tom Gormican directed “The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent” from a screenplay that he co-wrote with Kevin Etten. It’s Gormican’s second feature film, after he made his feature-film directorial debut with the forgettable 2014 male-friendship comedy “That Awkward Moment.” Gormican’s background is mainly as a TV writer/producer, with credits that include “Scrubs,” “Desperate Housewives” and “Ed.” At times, “The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent” veers into stale TV sitcom territory, but the movie has enough originality and charm to rise above its repetitive clichés. “The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent” has its world premiere at the 2022 South by Southwest (SXSW) Film Festival in Austin, Texas.

Cage has said in interviews that he initially rejected the idea of doing this movie. It’s a good thing that he changed his mind, because “The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent” is easily one of the funniest comedy films that Cage has done in decades. In the movie, he plays two versions of himself: (1) main character Nick Cage, a present-day version of himself, and (2) Nicky Cage, a younger, brasher version of Cage, circa the late 1980s/early 1990s. (According to the movie’s production notes, Nicky’s physical appearance was inspired by how the real Cage looked in his 1990 movie “Wild at Heart.”)

Nicky has de-aging visual effects for his face, and he appears to Nick as a figment of Nick’s imagination, in moments when Nick is feeling insecure. Nicky’s blunt and sometimes crude conversations with Nick (which are either pep talks, insults or both) are among the more memorable parts of the movie. Nicky has a habit of yelling out “I’m Nick fucking Cage!,” in an elongated way, as if he’s a WWE announcer yelling, “Let’s get ready to rumble!” before a wrestling match. In the film’s end credits, the actor listed as portraying Nicky is Nicolas Kim Coppola, which is a cheeky nod to Cage’s birth surname Coppola. (Numerous movie fans already know that Cage is part of the famous Coppola movie family.)

In the beginning of “The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent,” Nick is a world-famous actor in Los Angeles, but he’s currently not getting the acting roles that he wants. Nick has been struggling with being labeled a “has-been” who’s been doing a lot of low-budget, low-quality movies in recent years. (Real-life filmmaker David Gordon Green has a cameo as himself in an early scene in the movie where Nick tries to impress him with an impromptu monologue reading.)

When Nicky shows up and talks to Nick, it’s usually to remind Nick that his younger self would never have stooped to the level of the type of work that Nick is doing now. In one of the movie’s early scenes, Nicky is lecturing Nick about it during a drive in Nick’s car, with Nick driving. A defensive Nick snaps back: “Hello! It’s my job! It’s how I pay my bills. I have to feed my family.” Nick ends the conversation by telling Nicky, “You’re annoying!” And then Nick kicks Nicky out of the car.

Nick’s fast-talking agent Richard Fink (played by Neil Patrick Harris, in a cameo role) tells Nick about a job offer from a Nick Cage superfan in Mallorca, Spain. This wealthy fan wants to pay Nick $1 million to make a personal appearance at the fan’s birthday party. Nick says no to the idea, because he thinks that these types of personal appearances are beneath him as a “serious actor.”

However, because Nick gets rejected for a movie role that he had been counting on getting, and because he has high-priced divorce payments and other bills, a financially desperate Nick agrees to the birthday party job offer. Nick makes it clear to Richard that this personal appearance better not include anything involving kinky sex. Nick has no idea that what he thinks will be an easy gig will turn out to be a life-threatening, mind-bending experience for him and other people.

Nick isn’t just having problems in his career. His personal life is also messy. Nick has a tension-filled relationship with his ex-wife Olivia (played by Sharon Horgan), a former makeup artist whom he met on the set of his 2001 movie “Captain Corelli’s Mandolin.” It’s revealed in “The Unbearable Wright of Massive Talent” that one of the main reasons why they divorced was because Olivia thought that Nick put his career above everything else in his life.

Nick and Olivia have a daughter named Addy (played by Lily Sheen), who’s about 15 or 16 years old. Addy is usually annoyed with Nick because she thinks he forces her to do things (such as watch movies) that are according to what he wants to do and his personal tastes, without taking into consideration Addy’s own personal wants and needs. For example, Nick has insisted that Addy watch the 1920 horror film “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari,” even though Addy has no interest in seeing this movie.

Addy also thinks Nick has been a neglectful father for most of her life. That’s why Nick and Addy are in therapy together. But as an example of Nick’s self-centered ways, a therapy session that’s shown in the movie reveals that Nick spends most of the time talking about himself, while Addy sulks in a corner on a couch. Their therapist named Cheryl (played by Joanna Bobin) has to listen to Nick ramble on about his career problems, while she tries to steer the conversation back to how to improve his personal relationships.

Nick is so financially broke, he doesn’t have a permanent home, and he’s living at a hotel. When he gets locked out of his hotel room due to non-payment, he calls his agent Richard to tell him that he’s taking the birthday party job. A self-pitying Nick also tells Richard that he’s going to quit being an actor. On his way to Mallorca, Nick has no idea that he’s gotten on the radar of the CIA, which has been tracking the activities of the fan who has hired Nick to be at the fan’s birthday party. The CIA has this superfan under investigation for being the leader of a ruthless international arms cartel.

Two CIA operatives who have been assigned to the case are named Vivian (played by Tiffany Haddish) and Martin (played by Ike Barinholtz), who are surprised and confused when they see Nick disembarking from the private plane that the superfan has chartered for this trip. Vivian, who has a take-charge and quick-thinking personality, immediately pretends to be an adoring Nick Cage fan, and stops him at the airport to take a selfie photo with him. It’s really a ruse to plant a tracking device on Nick. Vivian and Martin are generic and underwritten roles, so Haddish and Barinholtz don’t do much that’s noteworthy in the movie.

In Mallorca, Nick is taken to a lavish cliffside mansion, where he is greeted by several employees of this rich superfan, who is described as a mogul in the olive grove business. The fan’s name is Javi Gutierrez (played by Pasco Pascal), and he is so unassuming on first impression, Nick initially mistakes Javi for one of the servants, because Javi was the one who drove Nick to this mansion by speedboat. The two people in Javi’s inner circle who are the closest to him are his cousin/right-hand man Lucas Gutierrez (played by Paco León) and a savvy business person named Gabriela (played by Alessandra Mastronardi), nicknamed Gabi, who is Javi’s director of operations.

Nick soon finds out that Javi didn’t just invite him to make an appearance at Javi’s birthday party. Javi has written a movie screenplay, and he wants Nick to star in this movie. Javi is crushed when Nick tells him that he’s going to quit acting, so Javi desperately tries to get Nick to change his mind One of the running gags in “The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent” is how Nick reacts to Javi’s attempts to befriend Nick and get Nick to read his script. It should come as no surprise that Javi makes revisions to the screenplay, based on a lot of the shenanigans that he experiences with Nick.

As shown in the movie’s trailer, Vivian and Martin recruit/pressure Nick to spy on Javi for the CIA. Meanwhile, things get more complicated with the kidnapping of Maria Delgado (played by Katrin Vankova), a teenage daughter of a politician who’s running for a high office in Spain. There are entanglements with a thug named Carlos (played by Jacob Scipio) and a group called the Carabello crime family. And it should come as no surprise that Addy and Olivia somehow get mixed up in this mess too.

Along the way, there’s some drug-fueled comedy that’s intended to make the most of Cage’s slapstick skills. First, Nick accidentally drugs himself with a potentially lethal dose of gaseous poison. Later, Nick and Javi take LSD together and have a bonding experience where they go through various levels of elation and paranoia.

Nick and Javi’s budding friendship is at the heart of the movie. However, there are also some standout moments involving Nicky, Olivia and Addy and how their relationships to Nick end up evolving. (Nicky spontaneously does something outrageous, when he kisses Nick, in a scene that will have viewers either shocked, roaring with laughter or both.)

Pascal is pitch-perfect in his role as Javi, who might or might not be the movie’s biggest villain. When secrets are revealed, they’re not too surprising, but one of the best things about “The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent” is that it doesn’t make Javi into a meaningless caricature. Even though Cage is the larger-than-life central character in the movie, Pascal holds his own and can be considered a scene-stealer.

“The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent” has the expected stream of jokes about previous real-life movies of Cage. Among those that get name-checked or parodied include “Con Air,” “Face/Off,” “Moonstruck,” “Valley Girl,” “The Croods: A New Age,” “Gone in 60 Seconds,” “The Rock,” “Leaving Las Vegas,” “National Treasure” and “Guarding Tess.” Also in “The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent” is a recurring joke about the animated film “Paddington 2” (which is not one of Cage’s movies) and how this family film sequel about a talking bear affects certain people who watch it.

Cage is a versatile actor who tackles his role in “The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent” with gusto. (He’s also one of the movie’s producers.) Cage makes this movie work so well because he’s fully on board with laughing at himself. Not too many well-known actors would risk doing a movie where they have to poke fun at their triumphs and failures, but it’s precisely this risk-taking that has made Cage one of the most interesting and unpredictable actors of his generation. “The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent” does indeed have massive talent, but this talent helps the movie soar instead of sink.

Lionsgate will release “The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent” in U.S. cinemas on April 22, 2022. The movie is set for release on digital and VOD on June 7, 2022, and on 4K Ultra HD and Blu-ray on June 21, 2022.

Review: ‘Prisoners of the Ghostland,’ starring Nicolas Cage, Sofia Boutella and Bill Moseley

April 18, 2022

by Carla Hay

Sofia Boutella and Nicolas Cage in “Prisoners of the Ghostland” (Photo courtesy of RLJE Films)

“Prisoners of the Ghostland”

Directed by Sion Sono

Culture Representation: Taking place in Japan, in the fictional city called Samurai Town and in a fictional area called Ghostland, the action film “Prisoners of the Ghostland” features a cast of predominantly white and Asian characters representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A mysterious man is forced to find a ruthless leader’s enslaved concubine, who has escaped. 

Culture Audience: “Prisoners of the Ghostland” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of Nicolas Cage and anyone who likes action movies that have more style than substance.

Bill Moseley (center) in “Prisoners of the Ghostland” (Photo courtesy of RLJE Films)

“Prisoners of the Ghostland” has impressive production design and cinematography, but this visually stylish action flick is too much of an incoherent mess in all other areas to be a truly enjoyable experience. Nicolas Cage’s die-hard fans, who automatically praise everything he does, will probably like “Prisoners of the Ghostland” just because he’s in the movie, in spite of the film’s very obvious failings. Unfortunately, the “Prisoners of the Ghostland” story just too cliché, but the filmmakers try to distract from this unoriginality by cluttering up the movie with predictable fight scenes and some bizarre characters.

Directed by Sion Sono, “Prisoners of the Ghostland”(which takes place in fictional areas of Japan) is essentially a post-apocalyptic film that blends elements of Western movies and samurai movies. “Prisoners of the Ghostland” (written by Aaron Hendry and Reza Sixo Safai) has the over-used “male hero who has to save a woman” concept as the basis for the protagonist’s main mission in this story. Maybe it’s a joke or maybe the filmmakers were just too lazy to come up with a name for the protagonist (played by Cage), but he doesn’t have a name in the movie. He’s listed in the film credits as Hero.

The Hero character is not exactly an upstanding, morally righteous person. He’s in prison for a bank robbery where he and his partner in crime, named Psycho (played by Nick Cassavetes), murdered several innocent bystanders. (This bank robbery is shown in a very bloody flashback.)

Psycho was in a prison transport vehicle that crashed into a truck carrying nuclear waste, which caused a massive explosion, leading to much of the area becoming a wasteland disaster area. (“Prisoners of the Ghostland” was filmed in Japan and Los Angeles. The movie had its world premiere at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.)

A corrupt and twisted leader named the Governor (played by Bill Moseley) has created a settlement community called Samurai Town, which is a combination of a modern Japanese city and American Old West village. As such, people in Samurai Town either dress in traditional Japanese clothing or cowboy/cowgirl gear. The Governor keeps women as sex slaves, whom he calls his “granddaughters.”

One of the enslaved women has escaped. Her name is Bernice (played by Sofia Boutella), and the Governor lets Hero out of prison to force Hero to find Bernice and bring her back to the Governor. As part of this mercenary task, the Governor forces Hero to wear a black leather outfit that is rigged with a detonator. The bomb on the suit will go off if Hero does not return Bernice in two days.

There are voice recognition buttons on the outfit’s sleeves, so that Bernice can speak into these devices to confirm that she is with Hero. Electro-chargers have been placed around Hero’s neck and testicles that will detonate if he tries to take off this outfit before the task is completed. Instead of taking the black Toyota Celica that has been offered to him, Hero instead decides to leave on a bicycle.

The Governor has a samurai bodyguard/enforcer named Yasujiro (played by Tak Sakaguchi), who catches up to Hero and tells him to use the car, and Hero obliges. However, Hero ends up crashing the car and is carried into a bombed-out area called Ghostland, which can be best be described as a rebellious steampunk community. The leader of the Ghostland tribe is the demented Enoch (played by Charles Glover), who knows that Bernice is there, but he’s doesn’t want to let her go.

You know where this story is headed, of course. The rest of “Prisoners of the Ghostland” is just a series of one obstacle after another for Hero, who gets into a lot of fights along the way. And did we mention that there are also some zombies in this post-apocalyptic world? (How unoriginal and unnecessary.)

Unfortunately, none of the uneven acting in “Prisoners of the Ghostland” elevates this shoddily told story. The dialogue in this movie is simply atrocious. “Prisoners of the Ghostland” tries every hard to be perceived as a zany action movie, but there’s no wit, charm or unpredictability to this story. For an action flick, it’s got dreadfully sluggish pacing in too many areas.

“Prisoners of the Ghostland” also has a lot of characters that are either too bland or so wacky that they’re trying too hard and are therefore annoying. Cage is just doing another version of the angsty loner type that he has already done in many of his other films. The villains are hollow. And most of the supporting characters—including Bernice’s friends Stella (played by Lorena Kotô), Nancy (played by Canon Nawata) and Susie (played by Yuzuka Nakaya)—are underwritten and underdeveloped.

It seems like “Prisoners of the Ghostland” was made with the idea that it will be a cult classic that will inspire other movies, similar to what director George Miller’s 1979 post-apocalyptic action classic “Mad Max” ended up doing for sci-fi action cinema in a “wasteland” setting. However, “Prisoners of the Ghostland” doesn’t have enough meaningful characters to care about to see again in spinoffs or sequels. “Prisoners of the Ghostland” is just an empty exercise from filmmakers who think that all you need to make a good action movie are memorable set designs, a well-known actor as a headliner, and a variety of fight scenes. That’s not enough to save “Prisoners of the Ghostland” from being a disappointing mishmash of superficial self-indulgence and amateurish storytelling.

RLJE Films released “Prisoners of the Ghostland” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on September 17, 2021. The movie was released on Blu-ray and DVD on November 16, 2021.

Review: ‘Pig’ (2021), starring Nicolas Cage

April 18, 2022

by Carla Hay

Nicolas Cage in “Pig” (Photo courtesy of Neon)

“Pig”

Directed by Michael Sarnowski

Culture Representation: Taking place in Portland, Oregon, the dramatic film “Pig” features an all-white cast of characters representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A reclusive truffle hunter goes on a mission to find his beloved pig that was stolen from him. 

Culture Audience: “Pig” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of Nicolas Cage and well-made independent films.

Nicolas Cage and Alex Wolff in “Pig” (Photo courtesy of Neon)

Dark, brooding yet surprisingly sentimental, “Pig” takes a simple concept of a truffle hunter looking for his stolen pig and turns this offbeat mystery into an emotionally moving story. The film’s main appeal is a standout performance by Nicolas Cage, who can count “Pig” as one of his best movies in a career where has done a diverse array of projects of varying qualities. What “Pig” does so well is buck conventions of the characters and scenarios that are usually in this type of drama. This story is as much about a man looking for his closest companion as it is about the same man confronting himself and his past.

“Pig” is the very impressive feature-film directorial debut of Michael Sarnowski, who wrote the “Pig” screenplay from a story conceived by Sarnowski and Vanessa Block. The movie (which takes place in Portland, Oregon) opens with a reclusive truffle hunter named Rob (played by Cage) making a sale to his biggest client: a man in his 20s named Amir (played by Alex Wolff), who visits Rob every Thursday to do business.

Rob, who is a lonely widower, has a sow who is his only truffle-hunting animal and therefore Rob’s lifeline to Rob’s income. This female pig is also Rob’s closest companion, whom he treats like a child. Amir comments to Rob about the pig’s truffle-finding abilities: “I don’t know how this little fucker does it.”

Amir has an air of cockiness and condescension when dealing with Rob, who has a scruffy and unkempt appearance. When Amir asks Rob if Rob ever wants a portable shower, Rob says nothing in return. Amir then says, “Good talk. See you next Thursday, asshole.”

Rob is content to live a quiet and simple life on his own. However, there are signs that he’s in deep emotional pain over the death of his wife Lori (played by Cassandra Violet in flashbacks), because he often listens mournfully to audio recordings that Lori made. It’s never really mentioned in the movie how long Lori has been deceased, but Rob’s past life is slowly revealed throughout the story.

Rob is about to go through some more emotional turmoil. One night, a break-in occurs at his home, and his pig is stolen. Rob gets assaulted during this home invasion theft. He gets in his truck to chase after the thieves, but his truck is such a clunker, it stops soon after it starts.

Rob then walks to the nearest diner to use the phone (because apparently, Rob doesn’t have a phone), so that he can call Amir and ask for his help to find his pig. When Rob tells Amir what happened, Amir is dismissive: “Listen, man. It’s not my problem.” Rob snarls, “You want your supply? I need my pig.” Rob also refuses Amir’s suggestion to get another pig.

Because Rob needs transportation to get around, Amir is the one who does the driving. Rob then goes on a quest to find the pig. It takes him down some unexpected paths that includes visiting places as disparate as an underground fight club and the mansion of Amir’s wealthy father Darius (played by Adam Arkin) and a lot of places in between.

It soon becomes obvious that the theft of Rob’s pig isn’t just about how the pig will affect his income. Rob has an emotional attachment to the pig that represents trying to heal from his grief. The pig also represents the uncomplicated dignity Rob wants to have when people he knows often look down at him or ridicule him for his simple farmer’s life. Amir starts off as shallow and self-centered, but he goes through a change of perspective when he becomes involved in Rob’s world and sees different sides to Rob.

There’s more to the story than the mystery of who stole the pig and if Rob can find this cherished animal. Viewers will also learn more about what’s behind the enigma of Rob and who he really is as a person. It’s a fascinating psychological portrait that benefits from Sarnowski’s skillful direction and writing, which keep viewers interested and invested in finding out how everything is going to end in the movie.

Cage has been doing a lot of other low-budget, independent films that aren’t really worthy of his talent. His performance in “Pig” is a very memorable portrayal of a man who’s angry at the world but also at war with himself. “Pig” is the type of artfully made film that Cage needs to be doing more often instead of the mindless schlock that has made him a punchline for too many jokes.

Neon released “Pig” in U.S. cinemas on July 15, 2021. The movie’s release date on digital and VOD was on August 3, 2021. “Pig” is also available for streaming on Hulu.

Review: ‘Willy’s Wonderland,’ starring Nicolas Cage

April 17, 2022

by Carla Hay

Nicolas Cage in “Willy’s Wonderland” (Photo courtesy of Screen Media Films)

“Willy’s Wonderland”

Directed by Kevin Lewis

Culture Representation: Taking place in the fictional town of Hayesville, Nevada, the horror film “Willy’s Wonderland” features a cast of predominantly white characters (with a few African Americans and Latinos) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: After his car breaks down in a remote area, an unnamed loner agrees to pay for the repairs by cleaning an abandoned funhouse that has some sinister secrets and a group of animatronic mascots that kill. 

Culture Audience: “Willy’s Wonderland” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of Nicolas Cage and people who don’t mind slasher flicks with hollow characters and a concept that quickly wears thin.

Emily Tosta and Nicolas Cage in “Willy’s Wonderland” (Photo courtesy of Screen Media Films)

“Willy’s Wonderland” wastes its unique production design and potentially clever premise by just becoming another repetitive slasher flick. Nicolas Cage’s one-dimensional performance becomes a complete bore. The rampaging animatronic mascots in the film have more memorable personalities than the human characters.

Yes, “Willy’s Wonderland” is about a funhouse with animatronic figures that kill. The movie could have been a wildly funny and entertaining horror story, but it’s unable to sustain much of its appeal and tension during the last two-thirds of the film. It just becomes a tiresome checklist of people who get killed in uninspired and gory ways. It’s also very easy to predict who will be the last ones standing as the survivors at the end of the movie.

Directed by Kevin Lewis and written by G.O. Parsons (in his feature-film debut as a screenwriter), “Willy’s Wonderland” certainly can be commended for its entrancing and eye-catching production design of the Willy’s Wonderland funhouse that’s at the center of the story’s mayhem. (The “Willy’s Wonderland” funhouse scenes were actually filmed at PopCom in Atlanta.) Unfortunately, it looks like the filmmakers of “Willy’s Wonderland” put more thought into how the movie looks than into developing an engaging story that delivers surprises or meaningful characters.

Cage is the unnamed protagonist of “Willy’s Wonderland” who becomes the unwitting main target in this deadly funhouse. In the beginning of the movie, his car breaks down after getting a flat tire in the small, remote town of Hayesville, Nevada. Hayesville is so behind-the-times, it doesn’t have Internet service.

Meanwhile, this unlucky stranger gets a ride from truck driver passing by named Jed Love (played by Chris Warner), who takes him to the nearest mechanic, who will only accept cash as payment. But this stranger is out of luck because the only ATM machine in town doesn’t work. What’s a cash-strapped owner of a broken car to do when the closest mechanic will only take cash?

If he’s in a mindless horror movie like “Willy’s Wonderland,” he doesn’t consider other options, like calling to find a car repair service that will take other payments besides cash. No, he takes a “too good to be true” offer from a guy named Tex Macadoo (played by Ric Reitz), who steps in at just the right moment. Tex tells this stranger that he will pay to have this stranger’s car fixed. All the stranger has to do is spend a night cleaning Willy’s Wonderland, an abandoned family fun center that Tex owns and says he has plans to re-open.

Tex says that these janitor duties can only take place at night, and whoever cleans the place has to spend the entire night there. These requirements immediately sound suspicious, but some people will do anything to get their broken car fixed for free. Of course, there’s more to the Willy’s Wonderland story than Tex is willing to tell this stranger, who will be called the Janitor in this review, since that’s the name that’s listed for him in the film’s credits.

Meanwhile, there’s someone in town who hates Willy’s Wonderland and everything it stands for so much, she tries to burn the whole place down. Her name is Liv Hawthorne (played by Emily Tosta), an orphaned teenager who is quickly arrested for this attempted arson of Willy’s Wonderland. And it just so happens that Liv’s adoptive mother is the town’s chief law enforcement officer: Sheriff Eloise Lund (played by Beth Grant), who handcuffs Liv to a trailer.

Liv screams at Sheriff Lund: “You’re a bitch!” Sheriff Lund replies sarcastically, “I love you too,” as she leaves to go back to work. Liv doesn’t stay handcuffed for long, because her friends come by to rescue her: Chris (played by Kai Kadlec) is Liv’s airhead love interest. The other members of Liv’s teenage clique are Caylee Cowan (played by Kathy Banes), Bob McDaniel (played by Terayle Hill), Aaron Powers (played by Christian Del Grosso), Dan Lorraine (played by Jonathan Mercedes), Jerry Robert Willis (played by Grant Cramer), who are all just there because every slasher movie needs a body count.

And what a coincidence: Liv and her pals head over to Willy’s Wonderland on the same night that the Janitor is working there. The Janitor soon finds out that he’s not safe in Willy’s Wonderland after all. There are are eight talking animatronic mascots, and they are all just waiting to kill people: ringleader Willy the Weasel (voiced by Jiri Stanek), Siren Sara (played by Jessica Graves Davis), Cammy the Chameleon (voiced by Taylor Towery), Tito the Turtle (voiced by Chris Schmidt Jr.), Arty the Alligator (voiced by Christopher Bradley), Knighty Knight (voiced by Duke Jackson), Gus the Gorilla (voiced by Billy Bussey) and Ozzie the Ostrich (voiced by BJ Guyer).

By the time Liv and her friends arrive at Willy’s Wonderland to commit some vandalism, the Janitor has managed to fend off attacks from Ozzie and Gus. The teenagers meet the Janitor, and Liv has news for him, in case it wasn’t obvious enough: “You’re here as a human sacrifice.” Liv also says that that Willy’s Wonderland being a murder trap is the town’s dirty little secret. It’s eventually revealed why Willy’s Wonderland ended up being a sanctuary of evil. The rest of the movie is just a series of violent fights with the humans against the attacking animatronic mascots.

Cage’s role as the Janitor could have been more interesting, but the character doesn’t talk in the movie. He’s almost as robotic as the animatronic mascots. It’s never explained if he’s deliberately mute or has a genuine speech disability, but the movie gives the impression that it’s more likely that he’s made a choice not to talk because he doesn’t really like to be around people. One of the biggest disappointments in “Willy’s Wonderland” is that this protagonist has a severe lack of a personality.

Liv (generically played by Tosta) has a backstory that explains why she has a personal hatred of Willy’s Wonderland. It’s not a surprise, considering that she’s an orphan. Liv’s friends are underdeveloped characters who don’t leave much of an impression because their purpose in the movie is exactly what you think it is.

“Willy’s Wonderland” might be amusing to people who think it’s hilarious to see animatronic figures acting like murderers. The problem is that these killing scenes just become tedious after a while. The “jokes” in the movie are witless. And the suspense quickly disappears when it becomes obvious that “Willy’s Wonderland” is just following the same over-used formula that too many other substandard slasher movies have used before, with diminished returns and underwhelming results.

Screen Media Films released “Willy’s Wonderland” in select U.S. cinemas, digital and VOD on February 12, 2021. “Willy’s Wonderland” is also available for streaming on Hulu.

Review: ‘Jiu Jitsu,’ starring Alain Moussi, Frank Grillo, JuJu Chan, Tony Jaa and Nicolas Cage

April 17, 2022

by Carla Hay

Nicolas Cage and Alain Moussi in “Jiu Jitsu” (Photo courtesy of The Avenue Entertainment)

“Jiu Jitsu”

Directed by Dimitri Logothetis

Culture Representation: Taking place in Burma, the sci-fi action film “Jiu Jitsu” features a cast of white and Asian characters (with a few African Americans and Latinos) representing the working-class, mercenaries and U.S. military officials.

Culture Clash: Several human beings battle a death warrior from outer space who comes to Earth every six years from a comet-created space portal. 

Culture Audience: “Jiu Jitsu” will appeal primarily to people interested in sci-fi action movies that are inferior imitations of “The Predator” movie franchise.

JuJu Chan in “Jiu Jitsu” (Photo courtesy of The Avenue Entertainment)

“Jiu Jitsu” has nothing to do with the martial arts craft of jiu jitsu, just like this movie has nothing to do with high-quality entertainment. It’s just a messy parade of sci-fi action schlock with tacky visual effects. It also blatantly rips off elements of “The Predator” movie franchise.

Dimitri Logothetis, a filmmaker of hack action movies, directed the mind-numbing “Jiu Jitsu,” which really is nothing but corny fight scenes strung together with abysmal dialogue, all lumbering along until the very predictable ending. Logothetis co-wrote the horrific screenplay with James “Jim” McGrath. “Jiu Jitsu” could have easily been a short film, but it’s dragged out to tedious levels because of repetitive battle scenes.

The gist of the flimsy story is that a mysterious, muscle-bound American man named Jake (played by Alain Moussi) finds himself at the center of an intergalactic battle that has been taking place on Earth for centuries. Every six years, a comet opens up a portal on Earth. A death warrior named Brax emerges from the portal to fight a group of humans who call themselves Jiu Jitsus. Their Jiu Jitsu leader is “the chosen one” who must fight Brax, or else everyone and everything on Earth will be killed.

Jake is first seen in “Jiu Jitsu” running frantically in a forest in Burma, as if something is chasing him. (“Jiu Jitsu” was actually filmed in Cyprus.) Jake falls over a cliff and plunges into a large body of water. A middle-aged fisherman (played by Raymond Pinharry) and his wife (played by Mary Makariou), who don’t have names in the movie, rescue Jake and give some medical attention to his wounds.

It’s soon apparent that Jake has amnesia. The fisherman’s wife takes him to a nearby U.S. Army camp. The commanding officer in charge is a stern and impatient leader named Captain Hickman (played by played by John Hickman), who orders a buffoonish subordinate named Tex (played by Eddie Steeples) to act as a translator. Tex isn’t very fluent in Burmese, so he predictably botches some of the translating.

That’s when the fisherman’s wife tells them about the cosmic portal and the outer-space death warrior, whom she calls Dat Daw Taung. These Army guys think it’s just a bunch of rambling gibberish from a superstitious person. Of course, there would be no “Jiu Jitsu” movie if what she was saying didn’t turn out to be true.

Soon, Jake finds himself being interrogated by an Army intelligence officer named Mya (played by Marie Avgeropoulos), a no-nonsense type who doesn’t know what to believe when Rick says that he has no idea who he is and what he’s doing there, but later he has a vague recollection: “I’m here to do a job.” Mya thinks that Jake might be some type of spy. He’s held captive until the Army figures out what to do with him.

While Jake is in captivity, another captive breaks free from the prison compound. His name is Kueng (played by Tony Jaa), and he insists that Jake go with him. They run off into a field together. And lo and behold, emerging from the field, like beanstalks suddenly spurting upward from the grass, are three other “warriors”: tough-talking Harrigan (played by Frank Grillo), quiet Forbes (played by Marrese Crump) and courageous Carmen (played by JuJu Chan), who not surprisingly ends up in a thrown-together romance with Jake.

And so, off these five “warriors” go as they kick, punch and wield weapons (such as swords, guns and knives), with an Army leader named Captain Sand (played by Rick Yune) in hot pursuit. Captain Sand has some forgettable subordinates who help him in this mission. The five renegades inevitably encounter Brax (played by Ryan Tarran), who quickly heals from any wounds, thereby making him hard to kill.

Brax is dressed in scaly armor and has a full-sized helmet that shows light blue space where a face should be. Occasionally, outlines of eyes and other facial features show up in this blue space, using cheap-looking visual effects. Brax’s point of view is shown a few times as X-ray vision that looks like it’s bathed in a heat glow. It’s a direct ripoff of Predator’s vision from the “Predator” movies.

Nicolas Cage shows up 39 minutes into the 102-minute “Jiu Jitsu,” which is just another B-movie where he plays yet another unhinged, eccentric character. In “Jiu Jitsu,” Cage is a wilderness-dwelling loner named Wylie, who ends up joining Jake and his team. Wylie seems to know quite a bit about Brax and gives advice, much of it unsolicited and sometimes unheeded. In his spare time, Wylie likes to make triangular hats out of newspapers. These hats are not the cone-shaped head coverings that used to be called “dunce caps” in the old days, although “dunce caps” would not be out of place in this dimwitted movie.

Cage’s total screen time in “Jiu Jitsu” is only about 15 to 20 minutes, but he does have one battle scene with Drax that seems to be the main reason why Cage was hired for this movie. Cage gives a deliberately hammy performance that’s meant to show he knows he’s in a stinker of a movie. However, his comedic self-awareness just seems out of place in a movie where all the other cast members act like they’re in a serious action film. If Cage is openly smirking, it might be because “Jiu Jitsu” was an easy multimillion-dollar salary for him. The joke is on the “Jiu Jitsu” producers who forked over the money for a rehashed and unoriginal performance that Cage has done in dozens of his forgettable action flicks.

Sometimes, when an action movie doesn’t care about having a good story, intriguing characters or memorable dialogue, the movie makes up for this lack of appeal by having dazzling action scenes. That’s not the case with “Jiu Jitsu,” which is filled with nothing but unimaginative fight sequences. None of the movie’s characters has an interesting story, although “Jiu Jitsu” tries to throw in a “plot twist/reveal” about the background of one of the characters. This “plot twist/reveal,” which is toward the end of the movie, is not surprising at all. The only thing surprising about “Jiu Jitsu” is that filmmakers actually thought that this abominable garbage wouldn’t be such a flop.

The Avenue Entertainment released “Jiu Jitsu” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on November 20, 2020. Paramount Home Entertainment released the movie on DVD on December 22, 2020. “Jiu Jitsu” is also available on Netflix.

Review: ‘The Croods: A New Age,’ starring the voices of Nicolas Cage, Emma Stone, Ryan Reynolds, Catherine Keener, Leslie Mann and Peter Dinklage

November 25, 2020

by Carla Hay

Clockwise, from top left: Sandy Crood (voiced by Kailey Crawford), Grug Crood (voiced by Nicolas Cage), Thunk Crood ( voiced by Clark Duke), Gran (voiced by Cloris Leachman), Eep Crood (voiced by Emma Stone) and Ugga Crood (voiced by Catherine Keener) in “The Croods: A New Age” (Image courtesy of DreamWorks Animation)

“The Croods: A New Age”

Directed by Joel Crawford

Culture Representation: The animated film sequel “The Croods: A New Age” features a cast of characters representing humans who live in a world somewhere between prehistoric and modern and where over-sized animals exist.

Culture Clash: The caveperson family from “The Croods” encounters a New Age family with modern amenities and a superior attitude to people who live in caves.

Culture Audience: “The Croods: A New Age” will appeal primarily to people looking for lightweight animated entertainment that people of many different ages and backgrounds can enjoy.

Pictured from left to right: Ugga Crood (voiced by Catherine Keener), Grug Crood (voiced by Nicolas Cage), Guy (voiced by Ryan Reynolds), Eep Crood (voiced by Emma Stone) holding Dawn Betterman (voiced by Kelly Marie Tran), Hope Betterman (voiced by Leslie Mann) and Phil Betterman (voiced by Peter Dinklage) in “The Croods: A New Age” (Image courtesy of DreamWorks Animation)

Although not as cohesively written as 2013’s animated cavedweller comedy “The Croods,” the 2020 sequel “The Croods: A New Age” checks all the right boxes for escapist entertainment but offers some sly social commentary on the hypocrisy of self-appointed “hipster lifestyle” gurus. “The Croods: A New Age” pokes fun at so-called “enlightened” people who think they’re open-minded, but are really very bigoted against other people who don’t have the same lifestyles as they do. It’s this culture conflict that takes up a good deal of the movie’s plot until the last third of the movie where it delivers a predictable, crowd-pleasing “race against time” rescue scenario.

Directed by Joel Crawford, “The Croods: A New Age” picks up not long after where “The Croods” ended. The cavedweller Crood family from the first “Croods” movie is still intact: Grug (voiced by Nicolas Cage) is still an over-protective patriarch who thinks he always knows best. Grug’s wife Ugga (voiced by Catherine Keener) is still the sensible, more even-tempered spouse in the marriage. Ugga’s mother Gran (voiced by Cloris Leachman) is still a sassy, outspoken grandmother.

Grug and Ugga’s three children also have the same personalities: Eldest child Eep (voiced by Emma Stone) is an adventurous, independent-minded daughter in her late teens; middle child Thunk (voiced by Clark Duke) is likable but a somewhat dimwitted guy in his mid-teens; and youngest child Sandy (voiced by Kailey Crawford), who would be kindergarten-age if these kids went to school, isn’t old enough to have meaningful conversations, so she’s mainly in the movie to look adorable.

The Croods also have a relatively new member of their clan, or “pack,” as they like to call their familial group: Guy (voiced by Ryan Reynolds), an orphaned human from the modern world who spent most of the first “Croods” movie being the target of disapproval by Grug, especially when Guy and Eep fell in love with each other. Guy has now been accepted into the Croods pack. Eep and Guy, who are about the same age as each other, are still blissfully in love.

Guy and Eep are thinking of taking their relationship to the next level (getting their own place together, getting married, and starting their own family), but Grug doesn’t want Guy and Eep to leave the pack to start their own lives. “Eep will never leave us!” Grug declares to Ugga early in the movie. Ugga is more realistic about Eep eventually moving out of the family domain, but she doesn’t press the issue either way.

Guy and the Croods are still on their journey to find a promised land called Tomorrow, which Guy says is a utopia that he knew about when he was a child and when his parents were still alive. The land of Tomorrow is a place where dreams can come true, food is plentiful, and people don’t have the daily struggles of trying to survive the harsh environment that’s a way of life for cavedwellers.

And lo and behold, they end up finding Tomorrow. It’s a world filled with colorful plants, butterflies and creature comforts such as indoor plumbing. (There’s a joke scene in the movie where the cavedwellers marvel at how a toilet works.) But is Tomorrow really the paradise that Guy described? They’re about to find out.

The first two people they meet upon arriving in tomorrow are a married couple named Phil Betterman (voiced by Peter Dinklage) and Hope Betterman (voiced by Leslie Mann), who look and dress like New Age hippies but have the thinly veiled, condescending attitude of uptight bigots. Hope is the more insulting one of the two spouses. Upon meeting the Croods, she says, “I thought cave people died off years ago!”

It turns out that Guy already knows Phil and Hope Betterman because the spouses were the best friends of Guy’s parents, who died in a tar catastrophe, and the Bettermans raised Guy until he was old enough to be on his own. When Guy lived with the Bettermans, he was a close friend to their only child, a daughter named Dawn (voiced by Kelly Marie Tran), who is friendly and somewhat tomboyish. Needless to say, the entire Betterman family is ecstatic to see Guy again.

However, Phil and Hope are disappointed that Guy is in a relationship with Eep, partly because this snooty couple looks down on cavedwellers but mostly because they want Dawn and Guy to end up together. Phil and Hope concoct various matchmaker schemes to try to achieve that goal. Just like Grug was extremely paranoid and overprotective of Eep in “The Croods,” so too are Phil and Hope when it comes to Dawn. The Betterman spouses shield Dawn from the outside world because they don’t want her associating with people such as cavedwellers.

“The Croods: The New Age” could have gone down a very tiresome and predictable path with this love-triangle story, by pitting Dawn and Eep against each other in a catty rivalry. Instead, Dawn and Eep become immediate friends, but that has a lot to do with the fact that Dawn really isn’t interested in having a romance with Guy. Dawn’s parents keep pushing her in that direction though, because they think Guy is too good to be with a cavedweller such as Eep.

Publicly, Hope and Phil are polite to the Croods. Privately, Hope and Phil are appalled by the Croods’ primitive ways. The Croods are sloppy eaters, they have a tendency to burst through the walls instead of opening doors, and they’re sometimes loud and unruly. Hope says to Phil at one point in the story: “I don’t know if cave people belong in the modern world.”

Meanwhile, Phil finds out he and Grug have a common wish: They both don’t want Guy to end up marrying Eep. And so, Phil manipulates Grug into scheming with him to break up Eep and Guy. However, when Ugga finds out about this plan, she gets upset with Grug and makes him see that he’s just being used and that Phil and Hope must think that they’re stupid.

The movie tends to drag when it becomes about this social-class warfare between “modern” Phil and Hope and “primitive” Grug and Ugga. It’s an obvious metaphor for the political divides that can exist between liberal elites and those whom the elites think of as “less progressive” or “backwards.” Likewise, the movie continues the notion from the first “Croods” movie that people who are stuck in their ways can be a detriment to themselves and the people around them.

“The Croods: A New Age” doesn’t take sides or make political statements, because both couples act in less-than-wonderful ways during the story. However, there’s a definite message in the movie about hypocrisy: People who think they’re well-meaning in trying to instill their lifestyle beliefs on others can end up rudely treating those who don’t share the same beliefs as “outsiders” who deserve to be disrespected. And mostly, the movie is about tolerance for other people’s lifestyle choices if those choices aren’t hurting anyone.

Four people (Kevin Hageman, Dan Hageman, Paul Fisher and Bob Logan) are credited with writing the screenplay for “The Croods: A New Age.” And the movie does have a tone of “too many cooks in the kitchen” in how this entire story is constructed. The last third of the movie tries to cram in a lot of action in a somewhat messy way. It’s as if the filmmakers remembered that children with short attention spans are a sizeable percentage of the movie’s audience, and the filmmakers felt obligated to pack in some suspenseful chase scenes in this sometimes rambling and unfocused story.

“The Croods: A New Age” director Crawford makes his feature-film directorial debut with this movie, after years of working as a story artist for several animated films, including the first three “Kung Fu Panda” movies, “Trolls” and “The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part.” Visually, “The Croods: A New Age” looks better than “The Croods,” because of advances in digital animation since the first “Croods” movie was released. In terms of story, this sequel is inferior to the original, because it’s a little bit all over the place. The plot jumps from the possible love triangle to the tension over social classes to a somewhat bonkers rescue mission that involves a feud over stolen bananas, punch monkeys, Gran losing her wig, and the kidnapping of some of the story’s main characters.

The voice actors elevate the sometimes banal dialogue, with Mann and Cage standing out in their portrayals of the movie’s two characters who have the most opposite personalities (Hope and Grug) in the story. Stone as Eep and Reynolds as Guy also give very good performances, but the love story of Eep and Guy is often overshadowed by the bickering among the rival married couples. And speaking of being overshadowed, the Croods’ two youngest kids (Thunk and Sandy) aren’t given much to do, and their characters have no bearing on this movie’s plot, which essentially wastes the talent of Duke and Crawford.

Musically, “The Croods: A New Age” benefits from the fun score by Mark Mothersbaugh and the selectively spare use of pop songs. (For pop-music overload in animated films, people can watch DreamWorks Animation’s “Trolls” movies.) The Partridge Family’s “I Think I Love You” and Tenacious D’s memorable cover version of the song are put to good use in key scenes in “The Croods: A New Age.” The movie isn’t going to win any major awards, but it fulfills its purpose in being a reasonably entertaining diversion for people who like comedic adventure animation.

Universal Pictures/DreamWorks Animation released “The Croods: A New Age” in U.S. cinemas on November 25, 2020.

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