Wednesday, September 29, 2010

FILM REVIEW OF ''8MM" (1999)

Columbia Pictures should have kept “8mm” (* OUT OF ****) in the can. If you thought Nicolas Cage’s previous movie “Snakes Eyes” was crappy, director Joel Schumacher’s second-rate, slipshod, murder-mystery about a runaway girl, a snuff movie, and our pornographic society may alter your opinion. Co-starring Joaquin Phoenix and James Gandolfini, “8mm” lacks originality, kinky intensity, and catharsis. Although the filmmakers take audiences on a tour of the sleazy hindquarters of American society, “8mm” balks at pushing the envelope in its depiction of decadence. Never as disturbing as the Al Pacino movie “Cruising,” the George C. Scott film “Hardcore,” or the Charles Bronson’s thriller “Kinjite: Forbidden Subjects,” this darkly lensed pseudo-suspenser simmers far too long before the plot comes to a boil. Fans of “Se7en” scenarist Andrew Kevin Walker may wonder how much Columbia diluted his script to yield such comatose claptrap.

When an industrial czar’s rich widow, Mrs. Christian (Myra Carter of “The Witches of Salem: The Horror and the Hope”), opens her recently deceased husband’s safe, she discovers what she suspects is a snuff movie. In this one-reel film, a young girl appears to die at the hands of a leather-clad sadist. The elderly Mrs. Christian hires clean-cut, buttoned-down Tom Welles, a small potatoes private eye, to determine the authenticity of the snuff film. Welles accepts the assignment without high hopes. He treats it as a missing person’s case. Once he has identified the girl as May Anne Matthews (Jenny Powell), he contacts Mary Anne’s working class mom (Amy Morton) and snoops around the runaway’s room.

The trail takes Welles to the West Coast where he hires a smart-aleck porno-store clerk, Max California (Joaquin Phoenix), with an encyclopedic knowledge of kink to guide him through the underworld of hardcore pornography. Max warns Tom before he begins his tour, “There are things you’re going to see that you can’t unsee.” Max is a tough young man who has not let the filth and pornography affect him. When Tom Welles meets him, Max has a clover of a cheap porno novel wrapped around a copy of Truman Capote’s bestseller “In Cold Blood.” Throughout the case, Tom grapples with the question that bugs him about the dead millionaire: “Why did he want to film a little girl being butchered?” Tom keeps L.A. porno producer Eddie Poole (James Gandolini of “True Romance”) under surveillance until Poole leads him to a guy who produced the snuff movie, the infamous Dino Velvet (Peter Stormare of “Armageddon”), who has his headquarters in New York City.

Tom and Max fly to the Big Apple, contact the fiendish Dino, and give him the front money for the movie. Tom has one condition: they must allow him to observe them as they film. At this point, Tom sends Max packing out of harm’s way, before he confronts the pornographers in an abandoned warehouse at the edge of town. The killers surprise Tom and turn the tables on him. “Satan ex machine,” quips the nasty Dino with relish as he shows Tom that they knew about him from the start. Further disclosure would spoil what little suspense Schumacher conjures up.
“Se7en” scenarist Andrew Kevin Walker has inked a lukewarm murder-mystery yarn shot on surprises but long on clich├ęs. The co-scenarist on “Hideaway” (1995), Walker provides standard set-pieces such as a rain swept graveyard fight, a “Silence of the Lambs” confrontation in a creepy house, an “In Cold Blood” style murder sequence, and a “Death Wish” vigilante hero. The villains epitomize stereotypical predators who pose little threat to the sanitized knight hero. The action plods more often than it pulsates. Obviously, Schumacher deploys atmosphere (i.e. , set design) as a smoke screen to cover up the pornographic material that good taste and censorship prevent him from showing. Indeed, as prudish as “8mm” is, the filmmakers had to contrive something more than prurience to attract an audience.

“8mm” makes the most of Nicolas Cage and shows Joaquin Phoenix at his best. Cage imbues “8mm” with his unique brand of underdog charm and antithetical heroism. Cage plays Welles as a sad-faced Sam Spade with a nagging wife (Catherine Keener) and an infant daughter. Young, ambitious, mobile, and polished, Tom devotes himself to his family. When he isn’t on a case, he’s raking the front yard. Tom is the heart and soul of “8mm,” and the filmmakers make him tough, resourceful, but vulnerable and hen-pecked. Tom Welles serves as the conscience and custodian of morality of “8mm.” A great deal of John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards from director John Ford’s “The Searchers” jostles for prominence in Nicolas Cage’s performance. Eventually, Tom begins to obsess over poor Mary Anne Matthews and her plight. Cage struggles to make straight-arrow Tom Welles a flesh and blood fellow, but Schumacher doesn’t abet him. Tom Welles doesn’t have much of a back-story. He is a cipher defined only by Cage’s repertoire of looks and gestures. Mind you, Cage gives a soulful, serious performance. Tom Welles may be too tightly wrapped, and Cage never lets his guard down. Welles can be defined by how much he can absorb before he buckles. “8mm” is another exercise in masculine control, and the film charts his growth from law-abiding private eye to lone vigilante.

The bad guys in “8mm” wear their villainy like placards. Four villains menace Tom Welles, but the fourth is not unmasked until the climax. All deserve to die, and as the offal of humanity they earn miserable, ignominious deaths. As a porno-movie producer, Eddie Poole (James Gandolfini) elicits nothing but contempt as the kind of verminous scum who sodomizes women, guzzles liquor, curses blasphemously, and dresses like a lout. He is a repository of politically-incorrect and socially unacceptable traits. As another porno producer, Dino Velvet (Peter Stormare) hams it up with a crossbow and the beard of a vaudeville villain. Chris Bauer creates evil incarnate as ‘Machine,’ the leather-clad star of S & M videos who kills because he enjoys it. Machine’s speech at the end of “8mm” serves as a commentary on the face of evil.

The villains in “8mm,” like some in real-life, do what they do because they can afford it and they enjoy it. They are not pawns of a disease. The late tycoon commissioned a snuff movie because he had the money, and wealth represents power in American society. The one real film lay in his safe like a scalp in a poacher’s bag. Eddie Poole made the snuff movie because “it was something I did for money.” Machine dismisses societal reasons for his homicidal behavior. “I was beaten as a child. I didn’t hate my parents. I like it.” Machine makes these comments as he slips on a pair of dorky glasses and leers at Tom.

Director Joel Schumacher has helmed several classy Hollywood movies, such as “Falling Down,” “The Client,” “A Time to Die,” “Batman Forever,” “Batman and Robin,” “The Lost Boys,” and “Flatliners.” The veteran director imitates Tim Burton this time out with his emphasis on Stygian lighting, gothic color schemes, and prosaic storytelling. Sadly, the story is presented in such a procedural manner with the accent on reality that it amounts to a bore. Cage takes breaks from the case to call up his plain-Jane wife and his baby daughter to apologize for not being with them. When things go too far, his wife reads him the riot act and threatens to leave him.

Essentially, Schumacher has gone too far in the other direction. From splashy comic book super heroes, he has retreated to dreary, world-weary ordinary mortals forced to make life’s disasters his omelets. Rather than immerse audiences in sex and nudity, Schumacher approaches the obscene then swings the camera on Cage’s face to see the effect it registers on Tom Welles. Always the epitome of subtlety, when he wants to suggest sleaze, Schumacher punches up the volume on composer Michael Danna’s electronic, Arabic-flavored music score. “8mm” drags along with a burst of energy near the end that does little to redemn the long wait to which the filmmakers subject their audience.

Altogether, “8mm” is a dull, clammy, little exercise in voyeurism and perversion. Columbia Pictures and director Joel Schumacher couldn’t have contrived a better bedtime story for the Super Court Justices to lull themselves asleep to than “8mm.”