SONNY – DVD review

Charlie Chaplin paved the way. Clint Eastwood and Robert Redford made a successful transition. So did Mel Gibson, Kevin Costner and most recently, George Clooney and Ethan Hawke. Successful actors are increasingly moving behind the camera, citing a natural progression in expressing their love for the art of filmmaking. Some may say these actors are unworthy and are just using their tremendous influence with the studios to land directing gigs but many of them have shown great vision to produce films worthy of attention. Translating a script into actual film footage takes more than just technical know-how. Talent plus a great deal of experience working on a movie set is also required, which makes most actors a natural for the job.

Now let’s welcome Nicholas Cage as the newest member of the actor-turned-director club. Making his directorial debut in the 2002 theatrical movie, Sonny, a gloomy character study from a script written by John Carlen, Cage can add a well-earned feather to his cap. A small controversy erupted over the film when Cage’s production company Saturn Films was sued by TV writer Robert Dellinger for not being credited for his part in the film’s script. Writer John Carlen himself is a controversial figure, having been in and out of prison for committing a bank robbery in the past. Dellinger in fact met Carlen while teaching a creative writing course at Terminal Island Federal Prison. The suit was later settled in favor of Carlen. Apart from this small flap, the movie unfortunately did not receive as much attention even though it boasts of an all-star cast that include James Franco, Brenda Blethyn, Harry Dean Stanton and Mena Suvari. Last week, I was surprised to receive Sonny in the mail from HBO as none of any previous HBO press releases ever mentioned it. Although distributed by HBO Films, Sonny is not an HBO production.

Cage initially got hold of the script for Sonnyfifteen years ago, planning to star in it himself. Unable to gather enough resources to start filming, the script got shelved until recently when Cage was looking for the perfect vehicle to make his directorial debut. Recognizing the need to work on a familiar platform, Cage decides to change the setting of the script, which was originally set in the 1960’s in another part of Louisiana to 1981 New Orleans. A bigger change to Cage’s original plans is the fact that he is now too old to star as Sonny Philips, the lead character. The fact that Cage is now directing this movie might have made the act of ceding the leading role to someone else less painful.

Sonny starts off beautifully, blessed with great characters that are caught in a dead-end situation that bears the mark of a dark and offbeat drama. However, it gets bogged down in the middle and towards the end with predictable premises that hurt the initial buildup. Having just been discharged from the Army, Sonny Philips (James Franco) returns home to New Orleans to his mother’s bordello, determined to start his life anew. Before joining the Army, Sonny plied the streets of the French Quarter selling his sexual services to women. His mother, Jewel (Brenda Blethyn) runs a brothel and claims to have taught her son everything he knew about pleasing the female gender. Having plied the flesh trade since he was 12, this sordid world of prostitution is unfortunately the only one that Sonny has ever experienced. Greeting Sonny’s return with joy, Jewel’s initial high is short-lived when Sonny announces his intention to lead a regular life “among the squares” outside of the family business. It is then that we slowly realize that Jewel’s delight in her son’s return is not borne of a mother’s love but of a shrewd Madame looking to revive her ailing business. Hoping to be set up with a job by an Army buddy at a bookstore in Texas, Sonny leaves New Orleans with not only a slight trepidation but also hope that by taking these first steps, it will lead to a better life. Carol (Mena Suvari), the only prostitute working for Jewel, also shares Sonny’s dream of another life outside the confines of his mother’s brothel. Recognizing that Sonny is her ticket out of New Orleans, Carol does all that she can to please her man. Also hanging around the brothel is Jewel’s companion, Henry Wade (Harry Dean Stanton), a drunken gambler-cum-thief, who acted as Sonny’s part-time father figure while he was growing up. So, what we have here is an eclectic group of characters living a seemingly immoral yet normal life.

At the onset, Carol and Sonny see prostitution like any regular job, a vocation that they have been programmed to perform while shutting out any emotional ties that might come with such intimate acts. However, to fall in love and to actually make passionate love to Sonny instead of the usual down and dirty sex that she performs with her customers, Carol starts to gain a new perspective of her “place” in the scheme of things. Instead of sharing Carol’s newfound passion to go straight, Sonny still sees his gigolo ways as a moneymaker that seeks to maintain his own version of a good life. Partly to blame for Sonny’s apparent shortsightedness is his total devotion to Jewel, even though she was the one who got him into the business in the first place. As the audience is constantly bathed in the cold and hypocritical vibes emanating from the dank world of prostitution, instances of sincere warmth and dramatic entanglements represented by Sonny’s dashed hopes, Carol’s futile love, Jewel’s desire for affection and Henry’s almost father-like attention for Sonny gives this movie purpose and direction, creating three-dimensional connections between the main characters. Sonny offers a genuine look at the human condition, daring the characters to make hard but right choices as they stumble their way through life.

James Franco leapt onto the screen with the 2001 TV movie James Dean, chronicling the life of the famous star. With an uncanny resemblance to Dean, Franco’s ability to bring out the dark and moody recesses of Dean’s character was lauded by many critics. Continuing his recent string of successes in hit movies like Spider Man, Franco’s interpretation of Sonny, the man-child who is hustling his way around horny old ladies, feels unfortunately just like a replay of his James Dean role. One can even sense a bit of Nick Cage’s influence in Franco’s acting. Not that it is a bad thing but Franco brings nothing new to his character Sonny except for a mish-mash of attitude and moodiness we have all experienced before. Although not as famous as her other British counterparts Maggie Smith and Dame Judi Dench, Brenda Blethyn’s performance as the tacky brothel owner, Jewel is one of the brighter sparks in Sonny. Having gained prominence years ago with the British indie hit Secrets and Lies, Blethyn is able to pull off Jewel’s manipulating ways with a Southern charm that is enforced by an almost-perfect rendition of a New Orleans accent. Adding to the acting tour de force, Harry Dean Stanton’s seemingly effortless acting puts the younger actors to shame. Like Christopher Walken or Robert Duval, Stanton’s time on screen, even if he is in a drunken stupor most of the time, is electrifying. With great performances from the other actors, Mena Suvari’s role as Carol seems lethargic in comparison. Even though it is hard to imagine Suvari’s angelic face posing as a prostitute, it gets even harder to watch her sob and whine through her scenes with very little authenticity or authority.

Even when he is behind the camera, Cage can’t seem to resist getting himself in front of it. Cage puts in his signature weirdo performance as a drugged-out gay pimp named Acid Yellow. Whether it brings any significant benefit to the story is up for wide interpretation but I see it more as a symptom of misusing a director’s prerogative in misrepresenting an artistic decision.

Sonny‘s widescreen presentation measures in at an aspect ratio of 1.85:1. Its anamorphic video transfer is very clear without a hint of any defects. Color representation throughout the movie is good, giving skin tones a natural warm look and making black levels easily discernable. Subtitle choices are available in English, Spanish and French.

The English Dolby Digital 5.1 audio mix is never taken advantage of in this movie. Featuring more dialogue than action, Sonny‘s sound mix is rather passive and is wholly concentrated in the center and front speakers. Also available is a Dolby Surround 2.0 audio mix.

Two audio commentaries–one with Nicholas Cage and producer Norm Golightly and the other with writer John Carlen–highlight the small list of extra features found on this disc. Of the two, Cage’s commentary is the most informative, detailing both the technical and artistic aspects of making this film. From what kind of film stock was used to the back-story of how the film became a reality, Cage delivers his commentary in his familiar monotonous voice. Carlen’s commentary is just mildly interesting, as he focuses on his original ideas behind each scene and each character. Overall, both commentaries are informative but not commercially interesting enough for general consumption.

Other extras on the disc include biographies of the cast and crew, Sonny‘s theatrical trailer and a preview trailer of another movie, “Pool Hall Junkies”.

Film Value:
I rate Nicholas Cage’s debut in the director’s chair as a moderate success. Sonny is not the epic movie-going experience that many actor-turned-directors tend to favor for their directorial debut (the films that come to mind include UnforgivenBraveheart and Dances With Wolves). Going for a more subtle approach to his art, Cage’s vision for Sonny is both enjoyable and intriguing at the same time. It is a known fact that great characters help makes a good story and Sonny has abundant choices in that department. Even though Sonny is a small movie with few characters, its non-sanitized premise coupled with excellent character development, makes for a promising debut for Cage. Making do with just a handful of characters also makes the story easy to follow and manageable. Except for Cage’s unneeded cameo in the movie as Acid Yellow, Sonny plays out beautifully, only coming up short when it got a little predictable in some parts. In the end, Nick Cage’s first effort as director is a grudging winner in my books. He just needs to learn to leave those cameo appearances alone.