The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent

If you are a close reader (and who got time for that?) you may notice that I don’t actually recommend movies very often, at least in any unqualified sense. Some of y’all read my review of Everything Everywhere All At Once and mistook my enthusiasm for that film as a recommendation, even though I qualified it six ways from Sunday. There are a lot of reasons to dislike the film, from vulgarity, to absurdity, to a fairly close hewing to political correctness, to say nothing of its occasionally hyperkinetic style.

The last time I recommended a film outright was on of the Christmas Ornaments suggestions, Joyeux Noel, and even there I didn’t qualify only because of space constraints. The point is, really, that there aren’t a lot of General Audience pictures these days. If we go back 40 years to what some ignoramuses claim is the greatest year in movie history, our top ten certainly seems more “general” than the top ten of the past decade: E.T.Indiana JonesRocky IIIOn Golden PondAn Officer and a GentlemanPorky’sArthurStar Trek II, Best Little Whorehouse and Poltergeist. (And I only liked four of those at the time!) You have to infer that any unqualified recommendation has the disclaimer “if you like this sort of thing, this is the sort of thing you’ll like.”

I do recommend movies, but I do it for individuals that I know. For example, I don’t think my mother or The Flower will like Everything but I think the Barbarienne will. What I try to do here is give you a sense of my experience watching something so that you’ll get a sense of whether you might like it regardless of how I felt.

Seems like a big lead-in, no? But that’s because we got another Nicolas Cage movie: The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent.

Some hate him, some love him and for some (probably most, though they’re quiet) it depends entirely on what he’s doing in the movie, and it is the last group that has the most to gain or lose from any given review of a Cage picture. So what is he doing in this movie?



I also greet everyone this way.

Cage plays himself, sorta, “Nick” rather than “Nic”, a Hollywood actor who has all the same roles as the real Cage (with a fictionalized family) but who is in desperate need of constant validation, to the point that he grossly neglects his soon-to-be-ex-wife and daughter while running himself to debt with reckless purchases and living at the Sunset Towers. Play It Again, Sam!-style, he is advised by his alter-ego, a digitally de-aged version of himself from the Wild At Heart years who insists he’s not an actor he’s a movie star and that’s what matters in life. It is hard to know which is more pathetic: This young, stupid Cage or the older, neurotic one who is bullied by him.

When he loses out (cameo by David Gordon Green, who directed him in one of his best roles, Joe) on his dream part his agent suggests he do a birthday party for a billionaire in Spain who’s a big fan. Neal Patrick Harris plays the agent, and I found this to be the only miscast—not because NPH doesn’t kill it but because he’s recognizable and it sort of breaks the illusion that you’re watching Cage’s real life. (This, again, is idiosyncratic: I don’t know that he’s generally any more recognizable than, say, Sharon Horgan who plays Mrs. Cage and is all over TV, apparently. Or Pedro Pascal, who’s apparently on “The Mandalorian”.)

The Spanish billionaire (Pascal) turns out to be really cool and the only man in the universe who loves Cage as much as he loves himself, a love which bonds the two in what turns into a rather charming buddy picture. This second act is full of references (most of which I didn’t get because I’m not really a Cage fan) and as the two decide to write a script together, it turns into a fun meta-ironic description of the movie we’re all watching at the moment, to the point where when they talk about the third act needing to be a dumb action picture to attract audiences, you know that’s more than light foreshadowing.



Because, unbeknownst to Cage, the CIA is using him as a spy because Spanish billionaire is actually an evil drug cartel leader—or is he? The CIA coerces him into doing stuff, ostensibly to rescue a kidnapped girl.

This part was interesting because, I don’t know about you, but I’m not at a place in my life (if I ever have been) where I can accept the CIA’s word for anything. So while I had no trouble accepting that there were bad guys afoot, I couldn’t really see the CIA as good guys. Intriguingly, the movie also seems to take that stance: The CIA may or may not be right, but they’re certainly grossly incompetent here. That struck me as very believable.

Anyway, the whole spy thing gave us yet another marvelous way to poke fun at actors, stars, and other delusional people and the movie has such a breezy, good-natured sense of humor, you really regret the inevitable third act descent into a dumb action picture. Now, it’s not all bad: This is what gives “Nick” his chance at redemption, when he finally has to prove that he cares about his daughter instead of just using her as a means to get attention. And it’s still pretty light and fun, with a seamless transition into an actual in-movie movie to give us the “Hollywood ending” but in a tongue-in-cheek manner that allows Cage to mock the at-times over-the-top style he’s notorious for. It’s just not quite up to the light-hearted lunacy of the first two acts.

There is a connection.

If you don’t like Cage’s broader acting styles in some roles you might appreciate the exasperation of the excellent supporting cast.

The wonderful thing, if you like Cage at all, is that the movie does give him the chance to act in a broad range of styles. He’s almost Woody Allen-esque at the beginning. Well, okay, a kinetic version of Allen, anyway. When he finds a friend in his biggest fan, this is by turns subtle and comically not, especially when he’s acting as a spy. And despite the corniness of the action-y resolution, you get here the very sincere Cage that feels very real. You end up rooting for the guy.

Directed by Tom Gormican and co-written with Kevin Etten, one or both of the two wrote apparently the script on spec meaning without any up-front cash or assurance that Cage would go along, and initially he wasn’t interested. At one point, apparently, Cage considered playing the Spanish billionaire, but even irony has its limits. Some good cinematography from Nigel Buck and a flexible score from the great Mark Isham, as well as just fun location shots (although supposedly Majorca, actually…Budapest?) round out a pretty darn good “general audience” picture.

It is rated R, for language primarily. There is some drug use, too, most notably an acid trip done for laughs and probably for some commentary on the thinking processes of “creatives”. And there is a kind of interesting message outright stated twice: “Never shit on yourself”, Nick says (right after screwing something up, I think) and “This is why I must trust my shamanic instincts as a thespian” when he realizes how screwed up the CIA—who didn’t trust his shamanistic instincts as a thespian—is. “Never shit on yourself” and “trust your instincts” is actually pretty solid advice, even if you are a neurotic Hollywood movie-star/actor.

'cause young Nick Cage is mega-creepy.

This is one of those cases where the creepiness of CGI de-aging works in the movie’s favor.

We followed this movie up with a Finnish horror movie called The Hatching, The Northman, The Duke, Speer Goes To Hollywood, Plan A, April 7, 1980, and when this is posted I’ll be watching The Raft. The last four are part of the Israeli Film Festival and, with the Finnish horror flick, really made us feel like we were “back”. Sadly, our local indie theater’s demo—elderly American Jews and assorted Middle Easterners—has not come back with us, and this bodes ill for its future.

But for now, we’ll soldier on.

The 2022 Oscar Nominated Animated Shorts

Well, that just happened. The Boy is off on vacation and I’m trying to get back into the moviegoing habit, which ain’t easy, because: a) arbitrary demands for masks and passports could pop up at any time; b) available screenings suck. But I thought I’d roll the bones for the animated shorts which are always hit-and-miss, but at least not usually 100% misses.

In fact, the first two shorts lulled me into a false sense of security that the last three exploited most expertly, leaving me in WTAF mode. The shorts were longer this year (sounds like a fashion statement) so there were only the five noms and none of the honorable mentions. The clearly best one, Boxballet, had about zero chance to win before the limited Ukrainian incursion Biden, Zelensky and Putin are playing out, but now probably will stand as a way for the Academy to rid itself of all those Russian sympathizers it’s been cultivating for the past six decades.

I digress. On to the shorts:

Robin, Robin (UK): A half-hour story about a robin raised by mice. Mice are sneaky. Robins are singy. Combined, you get a robin who sings about how sneaky she is. Overall, very cute indeed, if a little bland. A magpie (Richard E. Grant) sings a song about stuff that conceptually reminded me of Part of Your World from The Little Mermaid but with a melody like Be Our Guest. Gillian Anderson chews the scenery as an evil cat.

Charming, if not exactly fresh.

Boxballet (Russia): In some ways the perfect short story for our time. An up-and-coming beautiful ballerina and a pug-ugly boxer meet and fall in love, and both are presented with unethical options for getting ahead in their respective fields, but at an incalculable cost to their dignity and happiness. I don’t even remember if there was dialogue in this one. There was some background chat (untranslated from Russian but in that clear TV accent that makes it super easy to parse) and a few titles like “Supermarket” but primarily the story is acted out. Truly excellent and memorable and reminded me a bit of the great, melancholy short We Can’t Live Without Cosmos from 2016. A very pure idea and story told in a touching way.

Russian. Very, very Russian.

At this point, there was a card saying “Hide yo kids! Hide yo wife! Shit’s about to get real!” And you never really know what sort of thing is going to happen. Back in 2016, “Prologue” had this and it had some violence and nudity but I didn’t think I would necessarily rush a kid out of the theater. But, yeah, the next two get weird.

Affairs of the Art (UK/Canada): If anything represents modern Anglo culture better than a 60-year-old narcissist lamenting her life and indulging in weird art projects at the expense of all those around her while idolizing her literally psychopathic, childless sister, I don’t know what it is. When I say “psychopathic,” I’m not kidding: The narrator’s sister tortures and kills small animals and I guess the twist is that she goes out to Hollywood to get a lot of plastic surgery and taxidermy rich people’s pets. I don’t say the film approves of any of these characters—it didn’t seem to take a stance—and the thing about shorts (animated or otherwise) is that they don’t have to be to your taste. But, man, it ain’t charming, and if it’s meant as straight-up satire—I still would give it a meh.

Ugly and narcissistic.

Bestia (Chile): Dog decapitation and bestiality are the highlights of this Chilean short, allegedly based on alleged allegations. What this comes down to is Pinochet. Hollywood, of course, loves Communists, but it hates fascists, even when (like Pinochet) they just step down after a vote. An office worker takes her dog to a place every night where it rapes (and kills?) people. I don’t know. The only thing I’d say about this one is that it’s at least a genuine horror story and has some merit on that level. But you’re probably not going to like it.

Ugly. Really ugly.

The Windshield Wiper (US/Spain): This one is also emblematic of the decline and fall of Western civilization, in this case a series of vaguely connected images about disposable relationships in the modern world. The only “adult” content here is an actual, if ordinary sex scene, of an R-rated nature. It was relatively welcome after the previous two shorts, and I’m sure the whole thing resonates with a lot of modern people. It didn’t do much for me. I’m not really a fan of the animation style.

We have a saying, tongue-in-cheek but inherited from my mother’s father who said it in earnest: “We could all be dead tomorrow!” The ultimate rebuttal to someone worrying about some future event, I guess? The Windshield Wiper has an almost clichéd (almost?) use of indie folk-rock type songs, including one called “We Might Be Dead Tomorrow,” which made me actually laugh, particularly as a basis for romantic relationships one hopes to persist.

Imagine the “Sims” without the nudity blurred. Ennui worthy of any Frenchie.

2 out of 5 ain’t great; I was glad the Flower opted to stay home.

UPDATE: “The Windshield Wiper” won the Oscar.

The Conversation (1974)

Sandwiched between the 1972 Best Picture Oscar-Winner Godfather and the 1974 Best Picture Oscar-Winner Godfather II, Francis Ford Coppola directed a low-budget, low-key character study called The Conversation. A modest success (returning 3-4x its budget, but orders of magnitude less than Godfather) and a critical darling, I tried watching it once on the small screen and could not get into it. Even though it’s the opposite of the epic gangster flicks, I still would primarily recommend it be watched on the big screen: it’s a movie that demands a lot of attention to detail. It is very clearly among the best of Coppola’s films.

A "plumber".

Gene Hackman contemplates life as a plumber.

Released four months before Nixon’s resignation but conceived in the mid-’60s, Coppola claims to have been shocked at how closely the technology used by the White House Plumbers mapped with what he filmed. (He wrote, produced and directed.) It’s no surprise that the movie still resonates on the topic of privacy, even though the story itself (the eponymous conversation) is just solid thriller material that works as pure entertainment without the larger themes.

The Conversation has three major aspects that show our protagonist Harry Caul in different lights: It is a mystery; it is a deep-dive into the questions of privacy; it is a showcase for the hottest privacy invasion technology of the ’70s. Let’s take the last first because there’s a big sequence that takes place at a security convention, and it’s kind of amazing nearly fifty years later.

The convention is pretty standard, complete with booth bunny and a bunch of nerds and creeps talking technical details, but the sense of wonder as you see tiny bugs and phone taps that are activated by calling the subject’s phone is unparalleled in 2022 when you realize everyone: a) carries around and lives with devices designed for spying on them; b) has more invasion privacy power by sheer accident than pros did in ’74.


“Why would anyone want to carry this in their pocket?” “We’ll, invent a thing called ‘Twitter’…”

The point of this convention is to horrify us: These highly paid creeps have access to technology that allows them access to every private conversation we think we’re having. It’s meant to make us paranoid and it still works! Only now the highly-paid creeps are massive corporations and corrupt governments whose entire basis of operation is violating privacy. This aspect of the movie gives us the most “heroic” view of our protagonist, played expertly by Gene Hackman.

Harry is a true professional: He is excellent at his job, he builds his own equipment, he is sought after and has a kind of integrity in that he refuses overtures that could be very profitable and takes no personal interest in his subjects: He does his job without prurient interest, and even without human curiosity as his assistant (the sadly short-lived John Cazale) points out.

But this focus on the job underscores the fact that Harry is a literal tool. He takes a job to listen to “the conversation” (between Cindy Williams and Frederic Forrest) and rejoices in the technical aspects of the task (in sequences very reminiscent of Blow Up and later echoed by Blow Out), but when his client (Robert Duvall) has his heavy (Harrison Ford) running interference, he begins to suspect that the young couple’s lives are at stake.

Look at Harrison Ford back there.

A couple years later, at 29, Cindy Williams would go on to portray a young single girl in the late ’50s for the next decade.

What’s more, when one of Harry’s rivals (Alan Garfield) turns the tables on him, eavesdropping on him as a joke, we can see that Harry really, really doesn’t like it. In fact, Harry is paranoid: His lover (Teri Garr) knows nothing about him, he makes business calls from pay phones, he is alarmed when people wish him a happy birthday, and he spends considerable time cajoling the spare key from his landlady.

As he becomes increasingly agitated at the prospects of his work being used for nefarious purposes—something that has happened before to disastrous consequences, we learn—his sense of urgency to do something, to get involved, to try to stop a tragedy, dramatically highlights his limitations. Besides being a tool, Harry’s a coward, and his insistence professional ignorance raises an insurmountable barrier as far as knowing whether or not he’s serving good or serving evil.

I can't decide which is worse.

Cazale would go on to star in “Dog Day Afternoon” and “The Deer Hunter” before succumbing to Meryl Streep and cancer.

The dramatic climax of the film comes at about 90 minutes, and could’ve gone any number of ways. It could’ve been completely ambiguous, for example, with Harry completely unaware of what his actions resulted in. (It’s not, but how 1974 would that have been?) This is followed by about 20 minutes of twists and revelations in which we see very plainly the effect of trying to avoid responsibility in the name of professionalism.

Shot in Technicolor, though the drab ’70s version of it (which suits here), with deliberately wonky sound in parts and a lot of repetition of parts up front, I still don’t think I could sit through it on the small screen. A use of Jazz Age classics heightens the sense of paranoia. Like, you can understand being on a secret mission and hearing “When the Red Red Robin Comes Bob-Bob-Bobbin’ Along”, only to later hear someone else singing it—that might make you suspicious because who in 1974 was singing that song? Also, because the music is so upbeat in contrast with the tone of the film, it’s almost ironic in and of itself.

Composer David Shire (who would go on to win an Oscar for Norma Rae) slips in some traditional music later on in the film; I didn’t catch exactly when. The first part of the film, however, is all diegetic—the music all has a source within the film—and the shift is subtle and effective, as is the whole transition from an almost documentary feel to a more traditional cinematic experience.

That Coppola guy could make a movie, once upon a time.

Everything Everywhere All At Once

I’ve been a Michelle Yeoh fan going back to Supercop in the ’90s. She and Maggie Cheung and the late Anita Mui were kind of the chop-socky version of the American Scream Queen trio (Linnea Quigley, Brinke Stevens, Michelle Bauer), and were a credit to any film they were in. It was on the strength of that I ventured to the theater to see Everything Everywhere All At Once.

However, if I had known that Daniels had directed the picture, I would’ve gone without trepidation. Daniels is the name Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert go by when they’re directing music videos, but I know them for their freshman feature effort, 2016’s Swiss Army Man. The simplest possible review is probably the most accurate one: If you liked that, you’ll probably like this, too, because it is very, very tonally similar. Or, to put it in another light, this is the Matrix trilogy, if 2/3rds of the Matrix trilogy didn’t suck.

Hong Kong was LIGHT YEARS ahead of Hollywood.

Cheung, Mui and Yeo in “The Heroic Trio”.

In EEAAO, Yeoh plays Evelyn, a Chinese immigrant running a hectic laundry business that she’s trying to expand. She’s getting heat from a goblin IRS agent (Jamie Lee Curtis) for her copious, dubious business expenses. (A karaoke machine for a laundromat?). Also from her father (the great James Hong, still kicking ass at 93!) who has always considered a failure because she’s not a son.  She transfers this paternal disdain to her kind of dopey, affable husband Waymond (Ke Huy Quan, best known as Short Round from Temple of Doom) and her chubby lesbian daughter Joy (Stephanie Hsu, “The Marvellous Mrs. Maisel”).

Comics Matter host “Yaboi Zack” has talked about having “black woman PTSD syndrome” in comics where, if you see a black woman in a comic, you just cringe because you know exactly how that character is going to play out just through the process of eliminating all the ways it can’t play out in modern politically correct terms (and just heuristically seeing the way all such characters play out in current day media). And I have to admit, I cringed a bit—still knowing nothing about the movie—what have I gotten myself into?

Fortunately, Joy is not a cartoon cutout or a stand-in for some virtue. There is a message about acceptance, of course, but the message is a universal one. Hsu has to run the gamut from villain to victim, and she does well.

Wangs. Heh.

(L-to-R) Hsu, Quan, Yeoh, Hong: The Wangs experience Mandarin Officiousness American Style!

The movie kicks into gear pretty fast when Waymond—and I feel like I would be attacked for naming a Chinese character Waymond, or Wichard, or Bwian—suddenly switches into super-secret agent mode, and the plot begins to resemble that of Highlander (or more closely, Jet Li’s 2001 bomb The One) with Evelyn on the run from a multidimensional villain who believes—well, we start with “the villain wants to kill you” and evolve into something much more interesting.

This would have been fine as a film, really. Even at 60, Yeoh can fairly convincingly pull off some martial arts moves—though let’s give a shout out to her stunt double (Kiera O’Connor) as well as Hong’s (Alfred Hsing), Curtis’ (Elisabeth Carpenter) and Hsu’s (Gemma Nguyen)—and a quality action film is as welcome as it is rare.

But while there’s plenty of action, the multiverse concept is used to explore various ideas and relationships between the characters, with the notion that they are the same people (somehow) but in different circumstances, their antagonisms and affections might be reversed or altered in previously unthought of ways, and the things they think are so important in one reality don’t even occur to them in others.

This also would have been just fine, because a good philosophical/dramatic hook in a sci-fi/action film is even rarer than a quality action film. Mostly sci-fi is ham-handed or murky and almost inevitably ends so far up its own ass, it feels like being lectured by a dorky 14-year-old on the perils of climate change. But I hasten to point out again the Daniels are the guys who did Swiss Army Man.


You have to open your third eye, man. Did I mention your third eye is a googly eye?

That film, you may recall, also tackled the really big philosophical issues but the main plot mechanic was, literally, flatulence. Here, there are two comedic aspects that keep the film grounded and interesting. First, in order to fight interdimensional enemies, our protagonists have to make decisions that take them along unlikely paths toward universes where they have specific skills. Like, Waymond needs some martial art skill, but to get to that universe where he has that skill, he has to eat a tube of lip balm. Or he’ll have to give himself four separate paper cuts, or chew the gum off the bottom of the desk, et cetera. As the movie progresses, these decision paths require increasingly bizarre actions. And as random as these things are, there’s an aesthetic logic to it that pays off in the climactic sequence, which maps more or less to a fight scene but isn’t exactly.

The second is that the presence of the multiverse allows for very jokey things to occur, like an earth where everyone has hot dogs for fingers. But the twist there is that, when the Daniels introduce us to a concept like that, they go from the outlandish joke (a view of a primeval earth where sausage-fingered apes wipe out normal-fingered apes) to the very earnest representation of people living in a modern society where their fingers are basically useless, and how they evolved to deal with that.

You may notice a similarity to “Rick and Morty”, which has done similar gags for their “Interdimensional Cable” shows. But whereas that cartoon revels in nihilism, EEAO lets us view nihilism (it’s a bagel, literally) and then lets Evelyn find meaning the only way meaning can be found in an infinite universe of random particles. I found this to be a winning combination, just as I did Swiss Army Man‘s absurd path to something with meaning. The Daniels clearly want to talk about the Big Issues, but there is really the sense that they do want to converse and not lecture, which is the mark of great art.

Tonally, these shifts—from broadly comic to deadly serious to melodramatic—won’t work for everyone. It’s rare for an American movie to do it well, and it’s going to be jarring for some. But if you can enjoy those kinds of swings, it’s as well done here as I’ve ever seen.

This is not where the subtlety lies.

What happens is EXACTLY what you’d expect to happen with those IRS Trophies that look like really hostile butt plugs.

Excellent performances:

Yeoh could still carry a movie, though she doesn’t have to here. In a way, her part is the most straightforward since as our central character, she’s the stable point from which we view the other universes. Her arc is at times subtle and is probably the most relatable, as she views the different outcomes different life paths would have brought her to, which (in a very Buddhist-feeling vein) is presented as a kind of “grass is greener” trap.

By contrast, Hsu’s role is broad: She’s bratty, moody, and by turns sympathetic and unsympathetic, very human and inhuman. It’s a tough role and she handles it well. Quan, who hasn’t worked much as an adult, is very effective in his low-key role. (Fun fact: Quan worked as a stunt choreographer on the aforementioned The One.) Intriguingly, the universe where Evelyn and Waymond are the most “successful” is the one where they don’t get married. Waymond and Joy are, besides being well-fleshed out character, opposite poles for Evelyn to play against, and the movie literalizes this in a way I didn’t pick up on even in a second viewing.

Jamie Lee Curtis is fantastic. Initially, as the Javertian IRS agent bound and determined to make the Wangs pay their fair share, she is the movie’s primary antagonist. She segues seamlessly into a soulless minion of the Big Bad. And she factors in to the Wang’s multiversal existence.

The editing by Paul Rogers, who doesn’t have an extensive resume at this point, is Oscar worthy. The score by Son Lux (a New York based experimental group) is seamless across the tonal shifts. The sound editing, production and design, generally, is masterful.

Lots goin' on.

“Famous Evelyn” images include shots from Michelle Yeoh at the premiere of “Crazy Rich Asians”. This shot, I realized when pulling it from the web, has an interesting twist in it.

I said last time that I would (probably) stop saying of old movies “You couldn’t make THIS today!” Here, at least is a movie you couldn’t have made at any time in the past. Granted, the limitations would have been largely technical—that is, I don’t think there’s much about the story that would have been objectionable over the past 40 years—but this is a highly artistic use of technology that is used to tell the story.

The Boy was out of town when I went to see this, but when he came back, we went to see it again, and he found it entertaining (though he was too jet lagged to take it all in). I concur, to the extent that a second viewing, knowing all that was coming, was enjoyable just to see so many clues that seemed ell-oh-ell-so-random! the first time and realize they pay off later on. There are few movies (apart from kiddie fare) that are this dense and also this carefully constructed, while seeming so utterly chaotic at times.