Mandy (2018)

2019 #34
Panos Cosmatos | 121 mins | download (HD) | 2.39:1 | USA, UK & Belgium / English | 18

Mandy

Words feel inadequate to describe Mandy, the sophomore feature from writer-director Panos Cosmatos, the son of George P. Cosmatos, who directed the likes of Rambo: First Blood Part II and Tombstone — films which are not helpful comparisons here, I hasten to add. You could call Mandy an action movie, of a sort, but it’s unlike either of those. It’s not like a whole lot else, really.

Let’s start with the plot. I’m not sure Cosmatos did, but we will. Set in the mid ’80s, it centres around Red Miller (Nicolas Cage) and his girlfriend Mandy Bloom (Andrea Riseborough), who live happily in the back of beyond somewhere in the United States. One day a group of Christian cultists happen to drive past Mandy, and their leader, Jeremiah Sand (Linus Roache), takes a shine to her. With the aid of a demonic biker gang, Sand and co accost Red and Mandy for some nefarious cult-ish purpose. Naturally it does not end well, sending Red on a nightmarishly surreal journey of revenge.

I said Mandy could be considered an action movie, which is true: Red’s revenge naturally leads to some violence, which in this case often come at the end of fights. But if you come just for the action you’re liable to leave unsatisfied, because Cosmatos definitely makes you wait for it. Some of it does satisfy on a visceral, B-movie level (there’s a showdown in a quarry I shan’t spoil by detailing), but its purpose is not to revel in combat.

Nic Cage gripping his huge weapon

Rather, it is very much a horror movie. Not in terms of the obvious connotations of the genre — there’s no supernaturally-powered serial killer, no vampires or werewolves, no jump scares — but in the unnerving atmosphere the film sets out to create. This is what I meant when I said I’m not sure Cosmatos started with the plot: there’s a definite story here, and characters and emotional arcs within that too, but the primary goal seems to be the mood that’s generated and the feelings that instills in the viewer. It’s possible Cosmatos may have bigger ideas on his mind beyond that — some reviewers seem obsessed with the notion that the film wants to explore philosophical concepts but doesn’t do it very well. Perhaps they’re right. I didn’t see it that way, however, taking the whole affair as simply an inescapable dive into a fever dream nightmare experience, where the aesthetics and the sensations they create are the point.

Certainly, a good many elements are on board with this twisted perspective. The performances are certainly in the right space, with Nic Cage going full Nic Cage as he travels deeper into the nightmare, the impact of his barminess emphasised by him being fairly normal at the start. As the cult-leading big bad, Roache steps up to the plate of trying to equal Cage’s insanity, and I’d say he gets there — an impressive feat. Around them, Cosmatos lets thing unfurl at a leisurely, dreamlike pace. Some will say it’s too slow and succumb to boredom, but I think it’s very deliberate — though I will certainly allow that it does go too far in this regard at some points.

Crazy cultists, crazy colours

Further to that, he blends in a lot of surreal and fantasy-inspired imagery and visual flourishes, with Benjamin Loeb’s photography often pushing into extremes of colour (lots and lots of red), lens flare (so much more effectively than anything J.J. Abrams has ever been responsible for), and a deliberately-created haziness that, once again, the best descriptor for is “dreamlike”. That said, the shot-on-film, pushed-to-extreme aesthetic also helps evoke low-budget ’80s fantasy/horror films, in a kind of race-memory way — I couldn’t give you specific examples of what films I feel its emulating, but there’s something about the overall style that gives that vibe. Jóhann Jóhannsson’s eerie score also hits those same beats, in terms of both the era recreated and the film’s own unsettled atmosphere.

Mandy is today’s premiere on Sky Cinema, which feels like an ill fit to me. Maybe I’m being unfair, but I always feel like Sky Cinema (and by extension its viewer base) is much more focused around mainstream blockbuster kind of movies, especially for a Saturday premiere. Instead, it feels like Mandy should be making its TV debut on Film4 at about 11pm in the middle of the week (I won’t be surprised if that’s where it ends up getting its first network TV airing). I can see some tuning in expecting a violent revenge action-thriller and giving up after a few minutes of its particular weirdness. For those on its wavelength, however, it’s an experience (and it’s definitely an experience) that’s thrilling in very a different way.

5 out of 5

Mandy is available on Sky Cinema from today.

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Raising Arizona (1987)

2016 #164
Joel Coen | 94 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

Raising Arizona

Once upon a time I did a Media Studies A level, and (for reasons I can’t remember) our teacher showed us the pre-titles sequence of Raising Arizona because it was noteworthy for being the longest pre-titles sequence ever. As it happened our teacher was wrong, because The World Is Not Enough had already exceeded it a couple of years earlier.* And now it’s completely meaningless because most blockbusters don’t bother to show any credits until the end of the film, technically rendering the entire movie as the pre-titles “sequence”.

My point here is twofold. One: I miss the structure of all films having title sequences somewhere near the start. Two: before now all I could have told you about Raising Arizona is that “it has the longest pre-titles ever (except it doesn’t)”. Well, that and it stars Nic Cage and was directed by the Coen brothers. But now I’ve watched it and, three months after the fact, …that’s still almost all I can tell you. I also remember there was a kinda-cool semi-fantastical thing going on with, like, a demon biker or something. Oh, and it’s quite funny. Not very funny, but quite.

I have an awkward relationship with the Coen brothers. I always feel like I should be enjoying their movies more than I actually do, and I think some of their stuff is downright overrated. Unfortunately, Raising Arizona has done little to change this situation.

3 out of 5

* For what it’s worth, the length of TWINE’s pre-titles wasn’t intended. It was originally supposed to be just the stuff in Spain, with the MI6 explosion and subsequent Thames boat chase coming after the titles, but it was decided that didn’t make for a strong enough opening and it was recut. It runs about 17 minutes vs Raising Arizona’s 11. ^

The Rock (1996)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #75

Alcatraz.
Only one man has ever broken out.
Now five million lives depend on two men breaking in.

Country: USA
Language: English
Runtime: 136 minutes
BBFC: 15 (uncut, 1996) | 15 (cut on video, 1996) | 15 (uncut on video, 2002)
MPAA: R

Original Release: 7th June 1996
UK Release: 21st June 1996
First Seen: TV, c.2000

Stars
Nicolas Cage (Raising Arizona, National Treasure)
Sean Connery (You Only Live Twice, The Untouchables)
Ed Harris (Apollo 13, A Beautiful Mind)

Director
Michael Bay (Bad Boys, Transformers)

Screenwriters
David Weisberg (Payoff, Double Jeopardy)
Douglas S. Cook (Holy Matrimony, Criminal)
Mark Rosner (Blanco, Empire City)

Story by
David Weisberg (Holy Matrimony, Criminal)
Douglas S. Cook (Payoff, Double Jeopardy)

The Story
When a rogue US General and his team of Marines occupy Alcatraz, threatening to launch a gas attack on San Francisco unless their demands are met, a field-inexperienced chemical weapons specialist is paired with the only man to ever escape from the prison to break in and prevent the attack.

Our Heroes
Dr Stanley Goodspeed is a mild-mannered vinyl-loving FBI chemist, as unlikely an action movie leading man as… well, Nicolas Cage once was. His new partner is John Mason, a former SAS Captain who’s been imprisoned without charge by the US for decades. He’s also clearly more skilled than both an entire squad of mutinous Marines and, therefore, the entire team of Navy SEALs who initially fail to stop them. That’s the SAS for you.

Our Villain
Brigadier General Francis X. Hummel, a covert ops commander who is seeking recompense for his men who were killed in action but have gone unacknowledged due to the secretive nature of their missions. Fundamentally a good man, driven to less good methods. A particularly effective villain because he’s relatively sympathetic to the audience. Not all the men on his team are so trustworthy, however…

Memorable Quote
Stanley: “You’ve been around a lot of corpses. Is that normal?”
Mason: “What, the feet thing?”
Stanley: “Yeah, the feet thing.”
Mason: “Yeah, it happens.”
Stanley: “Well I’m having a hard time concentrating. Can you do something about it?”
Mason: “Like what, kill him again?”

Memorable Scene
Flarey goodBelieving the mission lost, the military has launched its back-up plan: an airstrike that will destroy the poison gas but also kill everyone on the island. Naturally our heroes manage to complete their mission nonetheless, and as the jets streak across San Francisco Bay, Stanley attempts to signal abort with two green flares. In slow motion, of course.

Making of
The final screenplay actually has many more authors than credited — not unusual for a Hollywood blockbuster, but the uncredited ones are of considerably higher profile. David Weinberg and Douglas Cook penned the original spec script, but Jonathan Hensleigh worked closely with Michael Bay on the final shooting script. When Writers Guild arbitration awarded the credit elsewhere, Bay wrote an open letter calling the process a “sham” and a “travesty”. Others who worked on the screenplay included Aaron Sorkin and Quentin Tarantino, with British screenwriting team Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais brought in at Connery’s behest to rework his dialogue, though they ended up rewriting everyone else’s too.

Previously on…
There’s a theory that Connery’s character is actually an older James Bond, incarcerated under a pseudonym. Obviously that isn’t actually there in the text, but is kind of a fun idea.

Awards
1 Oscar nomination (Sound)
1 MTV Movie Award (On-Screen Duo (Sean Connery & Nicolas Cage))
2 MTV Movie Award nominations (Movie, Action Sequence (for the yellow Ferrari’s chase through San Francisco))
2 Saturn nominations (Action/Adventure/Thriller Film, Music)

What the Critics Said
“the movie’s best asset is the old-fashioned, buddy-movie interplay between Cage and Connery — Cage as the frantic, white-collar lab technician who doesn’t like guns, Connery as the weathered, resourceful old pro who’s escaped from three maximum-security prisons and has a one-liner ready for every big, scary guy he kills.” — Gary Thompson, Philadelphia Daily News

Score: 66%

What the Public Say
“The screenplay […] does a sneaky thing on the way to Alcatraz. The two heroes are developed, or at least as much as one can expect for a standard action film. The action is diverted to the streets of San Francisco and a first-rate car chase. After an hour into the running time, the focus switches to the site in the movie’s title. These things are important in that they keep the film from stretching out the time spent on Alcatraz and becoming bloated on unnecessary action scenes. The audience has invested its interest in the heroes and can enjoy the shootouts now that more is on the line.” — Mark Pfeiffer, Reel Times: Reflections on Cinema

Verdict

Michael Bay has become a bit of a joke, thanks to his tendency to let his movies get distracted by explosions, special effects, and young women, while not paying enough attention to the screenplay. However, in his earlier in his career — and sometimes in later years, too — he’s produced enough quality work to suggest he does know what he’s doing… or maybe he’s just lucked out a couple of times. Either way, this is probably the pinnacle of his oeuvre. While it functions well in Bay’s familiar wheelhouse of adrenaline-pumping action-thriller, it’s elevated by a screenplay that offers dialogue which, at times, can be witty and/or intelligent; and, most importantly, which creates sympathetic characters on both sides of the conflict. There aren’t many actioners where you can say “the writing’s the best bit”, are there?

#76 will be… just a jump to the left…

Face/Off (1997)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #28

It’s like looking in a mirror — only not

Country: USA
Language: English
Runtime: 139 minutes
BBFC: 18 (cut)
MPAA: R

Original Release: 27th June 1997
UK Release: 7th November 1997
First Seen: TV, 22nd September 2002 (probably)

Stars
John Travolta (Saturday Night Fever, Hairspray)
Nicolas Cage (The Rock, Ghost Rider)
Joan Allen (Nixon, The Bourne Supremacy)
Alessandro Nivola (Mansfield Park, Jurassic Park III)
Gina Gershon (Bound, P.S. I Love You)

Director
John Woo (Hard Boiled, Mission: Impossible II)

Screenwriters
Mike Werb (The Mask, Firehouse Dog)
Michael Colleary (Darkman III: Die Darkman Die, Firehouse Dog)

The Story
FBI agent Sean Archer finally corners his nemesis, Castor Troy, knocking him into a coma in the process. Unfortunately, Troy has planted a bomb that will destroy Los Angeles, and the only other person who knows its location is his brother — and he ain’t talking. So Archer comes up with the perfectly sane and utterly foolproof plan to secretly have a face transplant and assume Troy’s identity. Unfortunately, the real Troy wakes up, takes Archer’s face, and kills everyone who knows the truth. Hilarity ensues! No, wait, it’s not that kind of movie — violent bloody action ensues.

Our Hero
Sean Archer, super cop. Looks like John Travolta, until he looks like Nicolas Cage. Don’t overthink it, it works just fine when you’re watching the film.

Our Villain
Castor Troy, super villain. Looks like Nicolas Cage, until he looks like John Travolta. Don’t overthink it, it works just fine when— wait, I did that bit.

Best Supporting Character
Castor’s brother, Pollux. Yes, that’s his name. Looks like Alessandro Nivola throughout.

Memorable Quote
Castor Troy: “Sean Archer here, who’s calling?”
Sean Archer: “Well if you’re Sean Archer, I guess I’m Castor Troy.”

Memorable Scene
The good guy’s teenage daughter — played by Dominique “Lolita” Swain, as if to ram the point home — is hanging out in her bedroom wearing next to nothing, when in walks the villain, who starts perving over her… oh, and he’s got her dad’s face at the time. This is the kind of scene you can have when your body-swap movie is rated 18, I guess.

Making of
According to IMDb, the studio wanted John Woo to take the slash out of the title, but he kept it so people wouldn’t think it was a hockey movie. I don’t know why you’d think it was a hockey movie without the slash, or why adding a slash magically stops it being a hockey movie, but that’s what it says.

Awards
1 Oscar nomination (Sound Effects Editing)
2 Saturn Awards (Director, Writer)
7 Saturn nominations (Action/Adventure/Thriller Film, Actor (both Nicolas Cage and John Travolta), Supporting Actress (Joan Allen), Younger Actor/Actress (Dominique Swain), Music, Make-Up)
2 MTV Movie Awards (including Action Sequence for the speedboat chase)
4 MTV Movie Award nominations (including Best Villain, shared between Nicolas Cage and John Travolta)
1 Golden Trailer Awards nomination (Best of the Decade)

What the Critics Said
“Travolta and Cage make superb adversaries, flip-flopping roles, first as hero, then as villain. What titilating fun to observe Cage seethe with venom and Travolta meet danger head-on, then see Cage become Travolta, as the latter adopts the unmistakable characteristics of the fiend. […] Face/Off is a masterpiece equal to the action classics Seven Samurai, The Wild Bunch and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.” — Roger Hurlburt, Sun Sentinel

Score: 92%

What the Public Say
“Gorgeously shot with lots of Ol’ West style close up on the eyes while silence is only interrupted by the sounds of gun magazines falling to the ground. Woo’s directorial vision and the clever exchange of snark and built up bitterness displayed in the dialogue are just two of the beautiful components displayed in the first 30 minutes of this film that set the tone of the fucking masterpiece that it is.” — Amy Seidman, This Film Is Better Than You, Deal With It

Verdict

After making his name as an “heroic bloodshed” director par excellence with films like A Better Tomorrow, The Killer and Hard Boiled, John Woo headed for Hollywood… and made Van Damme vehicle Hard Target and nuclear-warhead-theft thriller Broken Arrow. But after those he made this, surely one of the best action movies of the ’90s. Its sci-fi high-concept allows Travolta and Cage to have a whale of a time in each other’s bodies, and Woo’s trademark OTT action is as exciting as ever.

Next: #30, ah-ah! Saviour of the universe!

The Death of “Superman Lives”: What Happened? (2015)

2015 #95
Jon Schnepp | 104 mins | download (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | *

Jon Schnepp’s widely-reviewed documentary about the batshit-crazy Nic Cage-starring Tim Burton-directed Superman movie that almost happened in 1999. If all you’ve seen are the photos of a stoned-looking Cage in a light-up abomination of a Superman costume that leaked onto the internet a few years ago, prepare to be amazed. Indeed, those infamous photos and footage are an aberration that this documentary explains.

Schnepp guides us neatly through the film’s protracted development, from the early script stages — initially penned by Kevin Smith — right up to costume fittings and special effects tests. It’s remarkable how late in the day the film was canned. A wide array of interviewees means the documentary offers a genuine insight into the entire process, with the likes of screenwriters and concept artists offering details on specific elements, to producer Jon Peters (certainly a ‘character’) and director Tim Burton sharing more of an overview of the project. Indeed, the only significant absentee is Cage.

Some have said Schnepp puts himself in the film too much. He’s a long, long way from the worst example of a documentary maker intruding too heavily, in my opinion, though it’s true that at times he could pull it back a bit. A sequence where someone takes a phone call mid-interview while Schnepp patiently has a drink is presumably supposed to be some kind of comedic interlude, but it’s obviously an inside joke because it’s a narrative-interrupting pause with no worthwhile effect. Thankfully, such indulgences are few and far between.

There seem to be an increasing number of “making-of documentaries about films that didn’t get made”, to the extent where it’s almost turning into a sub-genre. The highly-praised Jodorowsky’s Dune is a fixture of my “must watch soon” list, while one looking into George “Mad Max” Miller’s very-nearly-happened Justice League movie is in the works. Schnepp has said that while producing The Death of “Superman Lives” he also uncovered information on a variety of other well-known didn’t-happen superhero movies (like J.J. Abrams’ Superman: Flyby, Wolfgang Petersen’s Batman vs Superman, and Darren Aronofksy’s Batman: Year One) and is considering turning those stories into a TV series. I hope he does.

No one outright claims Superman Lives would have been a huge success, as you might expect they would (especially Peters). Instead, as the documentary comes to a close, an interesting consensus emerges from its contributors: that Superman Lives would have been either a completely revolutionary hit or a critical and commercial bomb, but, either way, it would certainly have been interesting. Although this documentary is only really worthwhile for anyone already intrigued by the project or fans of behind-the-scenes-of-blockbusters tales, it’s hard to disagree with that opinion.

4 out of 5

The Death of “Superman Lives”: What Happened? is available to purchase in a variety of digital packages, as well as on DVD and Blu-ray, from tdoslwh.com.

* There are no certificates because it’s not officially been released in the UK and it’s “not rated” in the US. If you’re bothered, it would probably be a 15 / R for language. ^

Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance (2012)

2014 #61
Neveldine/Taylor | 91 mins | TV | 2.35:1 | USA & UAE / English | 12 / PG-13

Ghost Rider: Spirit of VengeanceBest known for the trailer that showed its hero pissing fire, Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance is a semi-reboot of the Marvel comics franchise about a demon-possessed vengeance-seeking motorbike rider.

This new take has trashier, almost grungy, stylings, which at least make it more interesting than the “mainstream blockbuster”-styled first attempt. That doesn’t make it a good film by any means, but it does make it somehow less objectionable — it seems to better suit the tone of the character, which is inherently dark but also a bit bizarre and pulpy. It allows the directors (best known for the trash-action Crank films) to have fun with it too. While that only pays off occasionally — just as often it’s crass or cheap — that’s more than could be said for the previous movie.

Again taking the title role, Nicolas Cage looks considerably older and pudgier than last time. Maybe it’s all the scenery he’s been chewing. A villainous Ciarán Hinds gives him a run for his money, though — between them it’s a wonder there are any sets left. Maybe that’s why it all takes place on location, apparently in the country of Eastern Europe, I'll eat you like I ate the scenery!where adults have east European accents but kids sound American, and Idris Elba pretends to be French.

With classy dialogue like, “Everyone’s robbing me! It makes my balls hurt!”, it’s a wonder anyone allowed a superhero franchise from a major studio to receive this treatment. Points for boldness, but most of them are negated by uneven execution.

2 out of 5

Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance is on Film4 tonight at 9pm.

Snake Eyes (1998)

2010 #86
Brian De Palma | 94 mins | TV (HD) | 15 / R

Kick-Ass, Knowing, National Treasure 2, Matchstick Men, now Snake Eyes — I feel like I’m seeing a lot of Nicolas Cage of late. (To be precise, it’s five films in as many months.) It’s not a conspiracy, I assure you, just an almighty coincidence.

Unlike in Snake Eyes, in which it’s no coincidence that a top boxer throws a fight seconds before the US Secretary of Defense is assassinated right behind dirty cop Rick Santoro (Cage), all in a lovely 12-minute opening take. And there’s plenty more to it than that, but I wanted the sentence to be halfway legible. Who did it? Why? How’s it all connected? Who’s involved? Such are the questions to be answered in the ensuing near-real-time neo-noir.

Let’s start with the opening take. It’s a fake (there are eight cuts), which is pretty obvious, but it’s still a nifty way of starting the film. As well as being the kind of thing I always like to see, it sets up nearly everything we need to know for the rest of the film. Almost every element of the conspiracy is tucked away in there somewhere, from the blatantly obvious to the tiniest detail we won’t even notice. It’s just one of many long takes director Brian De Palma deploys throughout the film, including one that sails over various hotel rooms for no reason other than it looks pretty cool. Which is fine — there’s nothing wrong with looking cool, especially in a crime thriller film set in an Atlantic City casino.

Another thing I always like is real-time. I don’t know why, but there’s something pleasing about a story that unfurls in exactly the time it takes to tell it, that doesn’t skip over characters getting places or cheat our sense of relative time for a nifty editing-based twist (which I’m not saying can’t work — just look at Silence of the Lambs — but there’s also a skill in avoiding it). Perhaps there’s just a thrill in the logistical challenge of making the concept — which is highly unnatural to film and TV — work. The first season of 24 paid much attention to it, to good effect; later seasons didn’t and, in my opinion, suffered. Johnny Depp-starer Nick of Time also used it, though I can’t remember much about that except it was total rubbish. Snake Eyes doesn’t stick to its real-time as rigidly as 24, but it was good enough to satiate me. By the time it begins to deviate significantly from the concept, the story’s got so involving that it no longer matters.

And another thing I always like is a bit of noir. Snake Eyes fits the bill, with ‘heroic’ characters of questionable morality, voluptuous femme fatales, vicious villains, double dealings, punch-ups in shadowy alleys, and dozens of other generic signifiers that I’ll leave it for you to discover and/or remember. I was rather surprised to discover it wasn’t on Wikipedia’s era-encompassing list of film noir (until I added it): I’m not always that good at identifying what counts as post/neo-noir (one might ask “who is?” considering the genre’s broad/nonexistent definition), but I’d say Snake Eyes is pretty much undoubtable in its noir-ness.

Based on IMDb scores and Rotten Tomatoes ratings and whatnot, it seems Snake Eyes isn’t very well regarded. Honestly, I’m not sure why. Perhaps it’s too stylised for some tastes — not everyone will like the long takes, the flashbacks, the point-of-view shots, the split screen, or Cage’s usual OTT performance — but I enjoy all of these things when used well, and here they are. Cage, for instance, isn’t permanently OTT, finding the character’s more realistic side when called upon; his style doesn’t always work, this is certainly true, but here it’s a match.

If there’s one significant flaw, it’s that the ending is too much based on convenience and coincidence; and someone in the editing room should’ve paid more attention to removing all references to the original, deleted ending in which the casino got flooded. I have no idea why that was removed — maybe someone thought it was a bit ludicrous. But it sounds more satisfying than what was included, which, as noted, relies on a handy spot of coincidence and at least one action that seems out of character. I can forgive it though, because I liked everything else. And the post-climax montage is a suitably downbeat ending to our hero’s story — another noir trait there.

Snake Eyes certainly isn’t perfect — as well as the above, I’m sure some take issue with its occasionally implausible conspiracy plotting — but if one accepts that it’s set in a slightly more noir-ish world than our own, and that half the fun is to be had from De Palma’s visual trickery, I think there’s a lot to like. And like it I did.

4 out of 5

Snake Eyes is on BBC One tonight, Sunday 26th April 2015, at 11:35pm.

Matchstick Men (2003)

2010 #84
Ridley Scott | 111 mins | TV (HD) | 12 / PG-13

Matchstick Men ends with a twist. One of those great big changes-everything-you’ve-just-seen numbers that have a habit of making a film notorious. Yet I’m almost loath to mention it, because I’ve never read a review, preview, summary or what-have-you of the film that mentions there’s a twist. Maybe I’ve just been reading the wrong pieces; maybe no one cares; maybe they’re all just playing along trying to keep it secret. But not me, because I bloody hated it.

The twist, that is. The rest of the film is pretty good, but the twist undermines it — and not just because I knew it was coming. I don’t wish to sound boastful, but I knew it was coming before I even started watching, guessed from the little I did know about the film from one or two reviews and (sort-of-spoiler warning!) that they’d cast a 24-year-old as a 14-year-old. I spent the whole film hoping that my predicted twist wouldn’t come to pass, but, with crushing inevitability, it did. I didn’t guess every element of it before I began, though I picked up most as the film went along, and those that I didn’t get weren’t surprising either.

Is it easily guessable? I don’t know. It was to me. Perhaps I’ve seen too many heist-type movies or TV shows (watching several seasons of Hustle covers that one easily), or perhaps just too many films with twists, or perhaps it’s just my writer’s brain at work — the latter does have a tendency to make many films guessable. At the end of the day it doesn’t matter, because a guessable twist can still work. This one doesn’t.

Twists are fine. Twists can be great. As I said, you can guess a twist is coming and it can still work. A really good twist works even when you know for certain it’s coming; its existence raises what you’ve seen, makes it all work even on repeated viewings when the element of surprise is obviously gone. Matchstick Men doesn’t have that kind of twist. It has the kind of twist that undermines everything you’ve just seen. Not because it’s illogical — it isn’t in the slightest — but because it tramples over the film’s emotional resonance, in my opinion.

I don’t want to give away the twist here because, even if it’s a rubbish one, that’s a bit unfair on the film. I’d encourage you to watch it anyway and see what you think. And there are reasons to watch it anyway, even if some of the best ones are at least partially tossed away at the end.

Good things, then. The performances. Nic Cage can be awfully mannered and OTT quite often, but here it works. His character is inherently implausible — an obsessive-compulsive agoraphobe who’s also a con artist — but he plays it well, replete with tics and habits. It could easily be a caricature or spoof of the afflictions, and at times it threatens to tip the balance — when we see him obsessively cleaning to a jaunty “isn’t this funny” score, for instance — but the line is successfully trod most of the time.

Alison Lohman is also exceptionally good as a 14-year-old girl. It took a scene or two to convince me, but after that I was plenty on board with it. It occasionally takes some effort to remind yourself she was 24. As the third lead, Sam Rockwell plays a typical Sam Rockwell part. He does it very well, naturally, and there’s nothing to fault him on, but he’s been better elsewhere. The rest of the cast are absolutely fine but not exactly called on much — this is Cage’s film, and to a lesser extent Lohman’s. They have the emotional journey, the film’s heart-and-soul around its long(-ish) con ‘plot’ (which could just be lifted from any episode of Hustle… except it’s not even that complex).

It’s also, as you may have noticed, A Ridley Scott Film. It doesn’t feel like one. It has a ’00s-US-indie aesthetic in every regard and consequently feels like the work of a first-or-second-time young-ish director. Perhaps this is to Scott’s credit, but on the downside it lacks any distinctive qualities. I suppose it’s not fully at odds with the rest of his career — even when you try to pick a genre Scott’s known for, you often find only two or three examples of it in his CV; and there are several genres you can do it with — but if you hadn’t told me it was a Ridley Scott film I’d never have guessed, and I’d wager no one else would either.

Matchstick Men was a lot better than I’d expected, because most of the coverage I remember shoved it aside as a middle-of-the-road side project for Scott. It’s definitely better than that, if still not the “sweep the Oscars” success Ebert seems to think. But I wish they’d stuck with the decision to cut out the twist, not because I object to how it leaves our hero (which was the reasoning, apparently), but because it undercuts an awful lot of what’s good in the film and consequently left a bad taste in my mouth, all for the sake of some aren’t-we-clever-ness.

Stop the film about when Roy wakes up in a hospital bed. Imagine they got away with it and he went to live happily with his daughter. It’s not just a nicer ending, it’s a more whole one too. And then imagine that film on my end-of-year Top 10, because this one won’t be.

4 out of 5

Bringing Out the Dead (1999)

2007 #114
Martin Scorsese | 116 mins | DVD | 18 / R

Bringing Out the DeadIt’s hard to know what to make of this, because by the end it all seems a little pointless. The storyline, which follows Nicolas Cage’s paramedic across three nights in New York, is a mixture of short episodic medical incidents with longer threads that continue throughout. These connect and fall apart, feeling as episodic as the rest, and most of them don’t really lead anywhere.

Perhaps the best description is that it’s a collection of subplots in search of proper story. There are some decent scenes and good shots, but the film doesn’t seem to have anything to say, and it doesn’t end so much as simply fade to black when it runs out of things to do.

3 out of 5