Stealth Cinema: The Shadow Careers of Our Favorite Actors

De Niro, Cage, Cusack, Kidman and the Economic Realities of the New Hollywood. (Or why exhausted parents sometimes have all the cinematic fun!)

Many know me as being the guy who’s obsessed with the last decade’s run of “warehouse movie,” low-budget films featuring big-time actors that avoided theatrical runs for DVD and Video-On-Demand releases. Twitter humorist and film enthusiast, and the originator of the only film podcast I’ve listened to every episode of, LexG tends to namedrop me in derision for my intimate knowledge of recent John Cusack and John Travolta releases. Well, here is the first thing I ever wrote about this stuff, originally for Queens Free Press:

While New York film fanatics enjoy the crisp autumn weather, stepping out to revel in the just-begun 51st annual New York Film Festival, where features by Spike Jonze, Ben Stiller, Claire Denis, and Agnieszka Holland premiere, or perhaps head to the Film Forum or the Kew Gardens Cinema to check out the Salinger documentary or catch up with Woody Allen’s latest, I myself, a veritable shut in due to finances and children, will curate my own film festival.  The slate? Made up of pictures you’ve likely never heard of and without doubt never seen.

My home team will include actors such as Nicolas Cage, John Cusack, Julianne Moore, Samuel Jackson, Sigourney Weaver, Val Kilmer, Robert De Niro, Aaron Eckhart, Nicole Kidman and Forest Whitaker.

The directors?  Well, other films made by these directors include such little known artifacts as Smash Palace, The Bounty, Falling Down, The Lost Boys and a sleeper worthy of a look, The Godfather.

What am I on about?  Well, raise your hand if you’ve seen Twixt.  How about The Numbers StationRed Lights6 SoulsFreelancers?

In fact, one of the films in my festival is premiering on DVD this week: The Frozen Ground.  Based on the true story of serial killer Robert Hansen, it features Nicolas Cage as a committed cop, nothing so special, but he plays the role straight and well.  John Cusack, beloved star of Say Anything and Grosse Point Blank plays much against type as a bespectacled, cruel sociopath who hunts women in the Alaskan wild for sport.  Rhadha Mitchell, so talented she played both Melindas in Woody Allen’s Melinda & Melinda, is featured as Cage’s wife.  The film is perhaps unsurprising, but a well-executed, moody thriller where Cage tries to safeguard the one surviving witness from Cusack.  It’s a tense nail-biter, including two exciting scenes where Cage and Cusack face off in interrogation room showdowns. It’ll make you forget Con-Air, if not forgive.  Ten years ago, Cusack might have been talked up for a best-supporting actor Oscar for Ground.

And you’ve never heard of it.

The present-day cinematic economy dictates that Hollywood sticks to big-budget, IMAX/3D ready spectacles that can become “tent poles,” the first in a series of hopefully profitable (and huge) films.   Think Pirates of the Caribbean, The Terminator, and the never-ending reimaginings of Spiderman and The Hulk. Thus the ceaseless parade of superheroes, world-ending disasters, and “high-concept” products that travel well as explosions and spaceships are easily translatable concepts to international audiences.

So, just like the middle class citizenry in America-at-large, the middle-class movie is getting wiped out.  There is still some room for the independent breakthrough made on an exceptionally small budget, such as the Before Sunrise/Sunset/Midnight series featuring Ethan Hawke and July Delpy, and low-budget actor-driven works such as the recent Enough Said.  But what are  millionaire actors trying to keep up their house payments to do?  Appear in the occasional spectacle unworthy of their talents, such as Cusack in 2012 and Cage in Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, sure.  But the secret to these guys and gals?  They still like to act.

The direct-to-dvd domain was once the stronghold of low-budget filmmakers Jim Wynorski and Fred Olen Ray, starring actors with baggage such as Eric Roberts, Michael Madsen, David Carradine, and Tom Sizemore.  As fond as some of us were of these wobbly efforts built on stock-footage and six-day shoots, a giant shadow has now eclipsed them, created by bigger-budgeted films that premiere on DVD here (or after a desultory one-week release to some barren theater to satisfy contractual obligations) but enjoy theatrical overseas due to the star’s still shining-names.  What’s unexpected is how well-made so many of these films are, as they often employ veteran directors happy to work and stars still thrilled to collect the lofty paychecks and get their names above the title.

Before you think I’m just gushing drivel, consider the case of one Francis Coppola, whose newest film, Twixt, a supernatural black comedy based on a dream he had, should in theory be premiering at the Film Festival.  But no!  Coppola recognized the freedom in creating a genre film on a low budget  with a still talented but aging star (Val Kilmer), knowing that if he made it on a certain budget he could do what he wanted.  Only those of us keeping an eye on the Target, Walmart and BestBuy shelves would have noticed the latest release of the director of The Conversation and Apocalypse Now.

What has become Roger Donaldson, talented director of the acclaimed Smash Palace back in New Zealand, and director of worthy films in the U.S. including The Bounty, No Way Out, Thirteen Days, along with box-office hits like Dante’s Peak and Species?  You’ll find him directing the silly but watchable revenge flick Seeking Justice with Cage and Guy Pearce.  Cage is the patron saint of the current famous-guys-making-films-you-never-heard-of-but-still-might-enjoy, having done four  in short order.  The aforementioned Frozen Ground and Justice, Stolen (directed by Simon West), and Trespass, an underrated thriller/black comedy directed by veteran Joel Schumacher (St. Elmo’s Fire, Flatliners, The Phanton of the Opera).  Cusack, along with The Frozen Ground, did the grim and distressing The Factory (which paralleled the Ariel Garcia case before-the-fact), and the muddled spy flick The Numbers Station, all in the last year and half.  And here you were thinking his last starring role was Hot Tub Time Machine!

De Niro deserves a whack though.  One of the all-time legends, he should not be lending his name and integrity to the excruciatingly amateurish 50-Cent vanity project Freelancers, a film so incoherent it can’t make its mind up if it takes place in New York City or New Orleans(!).  But before I burn an effigy of De Niro, I should add one of his most interesting recent performances is in Red Lights, a genuinely unnerving story where he plays a eminent (and bogus?) blind psychic who goes head to head with two psychic hunters played by Sigourney Weaver and Gillian Murphy.  Admit it, that sounds kind of interesting, dammit!  And you film snobs who actually leave the house are missing out by sticking to the art houses, multiplexes and film festivals.  DeNiro’s most recent release in this vein is Killing Season, costarring John Travolta.  The greatest actor of our time having done three films in a year that you haven’t heard of?  Those of you who just snuck out to see Luc Besson’s The Family have work to do to catch up with me, who has sat through all three of De Niro’s recent DVD releases (and liked two of them!).

Think Julianne Moore is one of the brilliant actresses of our time?  So do I, and you’ll delight in her performance in 6 Souls, a supernatural thriller costarring Jonathan Rhys-Myers, of Match Pointand the Tudors.  Samuel Jackson IS The Samaritan, my friend!  Bruce Willis fights Fire with Fire!  If you’re a fan, Nicole Kidman somehow stumbled into Trespass with Cage.  Aaron Eckhart your current heartthrob of choice?  Look no further than Erased, where he and lovely Bond girl (and Terrence Malick leading lady, film snobs) Olga Kuyrlenko run around Europe in a Bourne Identity knock-off.  Even the Rock is getting in the act, starring in Empire State, directed by one-time up and comer Dito Montiel who made the wonderful Guide to Recognizing your Saints with Robert Downey jr. and Shia LeBouf, which even you may have seen in the art house upon its release.  I’ll only mention in passing his Son of No One, which by some means snagged Al Pacinio, Juliette Binoche, Ray Liotta, Tracy Morgan and rising-star Channing Tatum and yet, yes, escaped your attention.  You can currently snag a copy for $7.50 at Target.  Auteurists should know horror-legend John Carpenter (the original Halloween, Escape from New York, The Thing) returned from a decade away from directing with The Ward, which I suspect you did not see last Halloween at any multiplex.

So be heartened, there’s still plenty of seats available for my “Hide In Plain Sight” film fest (bring your own popcorn, and some for my little ones, too).  If you can’t attend, these films are all out there, ready for you to enjoy at home after you exhaustedly put your own children to sleep.

Some of us no longer make it out on the town, ’tis true.  But so many of our favorite stars have benevolently been supplying the Target shelves with exciting thrillers and chilling supernatural  sojourns that will never make it to your local multiplex.  What these films lack in innovation, often fitting into tight genre categories (international thriller, ghost story, etc.), they make up for by providing more face time with some of the greatest actors of our era.  And with directors like Carpenter, Schumacher, Donaldson and Coppola steering these ships, I lately find my frantic attempts to entertain myself and the wife in the two hours after the children are put to sleep and before we collapse, remarkably fruitful.

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