Archive for February 1999

8MM

February 26, 1999

There are some people, I’m sure, who will defend the pointlessly ugly and monotonous 8MM because of those very qualities. It’s dark, twisted, repulsive, daring! Let’s stand back and admire the filmmakers’ stark integrity! Uh, no, let’s not. If I lifted a rock and pointed a camera at the squirming things underneath for two hours, would you praise my uncompromising vision? No, you’d say it’s gross and stupid. 8MM sets a new record for gross stupidity; it drags us through the dregs and doesn’t even reward us with anything original.

A can of film is found in the secret vault of a recently deceased billionaire. It appears to be a snuff film — pornography climaxing in the murder of a teenage girl. The billionaire’s widow hires private investigator Tom Welles (Nicolas Cage) to find out whether the film is real or faked. The assignment starts Tom — a family man with a wife (Catherine Keener) and baby daughter perpetually waiting at home — on a numbingly squalid odyssey through the porn underworld. Along the way, he picks up an unlikely partner — Max California (Joaquin Phoenix), a porn-shop clerk who seems to know every two-bit sleaze merchant on both coasts. They make a funny team for a while, a bit of levity on this grim journey, and the movie could have used a whole lot more of the smart, quirky Phoenix.

My expectations for 8MM were split, because the director is Joel Schumacher, who either banalizes anything he touches (A Time to Kill, Falling Down) or turns it into eye candy for hyperactive kids (Batman Forever and Batman and Robin); yet the screenwriter is Andrew Kevin Walker, who penned the diabolical serial-killer entry Seven. Judging from 8MM and Seven, Walker likes to explore squalor and madness; his work on Seven managed to be philosophical while packing a sensationalistic, National Enquirer wallop. Here, though, he just rubs our noses in slime, and it’s less shocking than degrading and depressing. We get glimpses of pathetic men lurking in underground fringe-porn shops, browsing videos of rape, bestiality, child pornography. It’s as if Walker had just zeroed in on one deadly sin, lust, and the movie shows no sexuality — much less any erotica — that isn’t diseased and foul. Anti-porn zealots should love 8MM, yet another conservative movie in disguise.

In the past, good actors have saved Schumacher from disaster, but nobody here can do much with their roles — not the usually amusing James Galdolfini (as a sleaze-porn producer), not the hatchet-faced Peter Stormare (as “Dino Velvet,” a gonzo-porn director in the mold of Gregory Dark), and especially not poor Catherine Keener, stuck at home whining on the phone while cuddling her baby in every possible shot. Nicolas Cage, too, seems to be coasting; this is essentially his yearning, puppy-eyed performance from City of Angels, a fatal mistake here. Such a sensitive, floppy-eared soul hardly seems credible as a private investigator (he also sets a movie record for gun-dropping). All Cage has going for him is his decency and determination to crack the mystery.

But then it’s such a lame mystery. 8MM reminded me of a parade of far better films: The Silence of the Lambs was better at detailing the sadness of self-hating girls kidnapped and killed to satisfy evil pleasures; Strange Days and Videodrome got deeper into the implications of snuff films; Man Bites Dog, a great obscure film from 1993, probed the stark pornography of murder in ways that were truly shocking; Hardcore, modelled on John Ford’s The Searchers, had a more compelling narrative arrow (the father rescuing his wayward daughter); and Seven at least provided a damn motive for its killer, twisted though it was.

What’s repulsive about 8MM isn’t what it shows us; it’s that it shows us these things and then tells us there’s no meaning to any of it. In 8mm, we keep getting spritzed with callow nihilism: People make snuff films “because they can,” people watch young girls butchered because they “felt like it,” people kill and torture because they “want to.” There’s no answer; fuck it; this is how the world is. Gee, thanks, guys. The true meaning of that girl’s death, finally, is a big opening weekend for Columbia.

Office Space

February 19, 1999

Mike Judge has sort of snuck in a side door and become America’s premier satirist. Since the humble beginnings of “Frog Baseball,” in which a prototypical Beavis and Butt-Head set the stage for the later exploits of the South Park gang, Judge has taken on MTV (on B&B’s show), road movies (in Beavis and Butt-Head Do America), Texan stereotypes (in King of the Hill), and now, in Office Space, the fertile soil of the cubicle world. Is Judge’s timing shrewd or bad? Dilbert, both in the funnies and on TV, has covered much of the same ground, as has The Drew Carey Show, which has long been considered a kind of unofficial live-action Dilbert.

So what’s left for Judge to puncture? A lot, as it happens. Like the best satire, Office Space is only marginally about its surface subject. The outrages here are exaggerated, but just slightly. Who hasn’t worked for a boss like Bill Lumbergh (Gary Cole — finally, Satan as Mike Brady), a Valium-smooth weasel who squashes the dignity of his underlings without ever seeming unreasonable? Or a boss who insists that you display the proper company spirit by wearing clownish buttons that weigh you down like chain mail? You don’t have to do time in a cubicle to run across gung-ho goblins like these; they’re everywhere. Where do they come from? Are they born that way, or does moral imbecility come with a degree in management?

For Peter Gibbons (Ron Livingston), the problem isn’t just Bill Lumbergh. It’s everything about his job — the pointless meetings, the senseless policies, the meaningless tasks. Peter is supposed to be working on Y2K-compatible software, an honorable goal, but the corporate mentality could drain the pride out of giving candy to orphans. Peter thinks he’s sick of his life, but he’s really just sick of the office (which has taken over his life). His reawakening comes, ironically, when he’s in deep sleep: a botched hypnotherapy session leaves him fearless and impulsive — he becomes the Bulworth of the cubicles, and his sudden yeah-whatever attitude has the opposite effect of pushing him further up the ranks. (It’s a bit like what happened to George Costanza when he decided to do everything “opposite.”)

Together with his fellow cubicle-prisoners Samir (Ajay Naidu) and Michael Bolton (David Herman) — “It’s just a coincidence,” Michael has muttered about six million times since the mid-’80s — Peter devises a hacking scam to steal some of the company’s money. Without pushing it too much, Judge suggests that when intelligent people spend too much time in the corporate pool (which esteems money above all else), they may adopt the ethics of sharks. Looking around the office, you realize that everyone except the managers is there for the money (the managers are in it for the power). Job security — being able to pay the bills — has become not a basic obligation but the sole meaning of life.

All of which sounds a little too hefty for a Mike Judge comedy, so let it be said that Office Space, while planting all these thoughts in your head, is also consistently funny. Jennifer Aniston basically functions as the movie’s “girl” — Peter’s love interest — but her character’s waitressing job allows for a few terrific digs at public-service jobs, in which the employer’s policies have precious little to do with the customer’s essential needs. Ron Livingston is a little bland by design — he’s the movie’s Hank Hill, the straight man for such off-the-wall characters as the cringing Milton (Stephen Root, as hilariously servile here as he is hilariously domineering on TV’s NewsRadio) or the movie’s Boomhauer stand-in, Lawrence (Diedrich Bader), a construction worker who seems a whole lot happier than his next-door neighbor Peter. For Peter, Lawrence represents a different way of life and work, and that’s the difference between this movie and Dilbert or Drew Carey: Those characters are trapped in their positions, but Judge points to a way out — or at least a more graceful way of reconciling one’s job and one’s life. Not bad for a guy who made his rep by splattering frogs.

Payback

February 5, 1999

paybackPorter (no first name), the anti-hero of Payback, is the least detestable fish in a sea of sharks. Which doesn’t make him a great guy: he’s cold, borderline sadistic, and generally a callous bastard. If Porter were at the center of a clever little art-house thriller, perhaps played by Kevin Spacey or Steve Buscemi, nobody would bat an eye. But Payback is a Hollywood movie starring Mel Gibson, whose heroes of late have usually been noble or likably goofy; Porter is neither. It’s a return to basics for Gibson, who came to international prominence as the grim-faced Mad Max, and it’s also a risk that perhaps only as big a star as Gibson could have taken.

The risk works. Payback is a gray and ornery comedy of bad manners, in which our only clue that Porter is the hero is that Gibson’s playing him. The plot, based on an early novel by “Richard Stark” (i.e., Donald Westlake — 1967’s Point Blank was also derived from it), is another return to basics. Porter has been shot in the back and robbed of his $70,000 share of stolen money; now he wants it back. He won’t accept less than $70,000; he doesn’t want more than $70,000. Why so fussy? Because someone was willing to kill him to steal it from him; that magic number represents what Porter’s betrayer figured his life was worth.

This stuff has been done before — it was done many times before and after Point Blank — but sometimes style and attitude make all the difference. Rookie director Brian Helgeland (who won an Oscar for co-writing L.A. Confidential) and cinematographer Ericson Core drain Porter’s world of almost all color; everything, including flesh, looks blue-gray and cold to the touch. Payback also unfolds in a universe where time literally seems to have no meaning: Sometimes the attitudes are very ’90s, sometimes very ’80s, sometimes even ’60s, and people are always seen using rotary phones (even in a car!). Helgeland, who also wrote the script (Gibson later brought in Mad Max‘s Terry Hayes to rework the ending), seems to have shaped the movie as a tribute to bad-ass cinema from all decades and also all countries — this movie, like Ronin, feels more European than American.

Gibson hardly even cracks a smile here, yet there’s humor in his consistent irritability and no-bullshit ‘tude (as in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome); if the movie flops, the entertainment pundits will chide Gibson for departing from his loopy Lethal Weapon persona — as if the hero of that series hadn’t started out as a suicidal, alcoholic wreck before gradually getting cutesified. I do wonder, though, why Gibson seems to have a torture scene written into every script; didn’t Braveheart satisfy his masochistic streak?

Aside from Gibson, Payback is a wonderfully wretched hive of scum and villainy. William Devane, as a bigwig in “the outfit” (mob), plays his role as a soft-spoken, reasonable CEO; Kris Kristofferson, as an even bigger bigwig, plays his as a pulp-fiction variation on his cruel sheriff in Lone Star; James Coburn pops into the movie as yet another bigwig with a taste for fine suits that exceeds his taste for violence; John Glover, though given far too little to do, brings a bit of zip into his few scenes just by standing there smirking over the brutality to come; David Paymer is funny as usual, as a rabbity smack dealer.

And it’s always great to see Gregg Henry, a veteran of several Brian De Palma films (notably Body Double); having accepted that his sourball features prevent him from playing anything but sleazoids, he’s perfected it. His character, who gets off on being beaten by a dominatrix and cringes before Devane’s calmly discouraging assessment of his status in the outfit, is the freshest creation in the movie. Maybe in an art-house version of Payback, Gregg Henry would play Porter; as it is, he’s the movie’s wild card, and Helgeland or Gibson (whoever was smart enough to hire him) may have jump-started a deserving career.


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