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Monday
Jan142019

8MM (1999)

Schlock and Trade

Joel Schumacher’s 8MM turns twenty this year. As someone who didn’t see the film until a couple weeks ago, I’m struggling to evaluate it as anything more than a fascination. Nicolas Cage stars as Tom Welles, a fledgling private investigator hired by a millionaire’s widow to determine the authenticity of an 8MM film found in her dead husband's safe (the movie in question depicts a runaway teen’s murder). This dour neo-noir finds Welles immersed in underworld depravity at the expense of his family, his sanity, and his humanity. For all the allegedly edgy themes in Andrew Kevin Walker’s screenplay (snuff films, bondage, black market porno), there’s little to recommend in an undeniably dated thriller that’s less shocking than a CSI rerun.

I’d imaging that’s true for mainstream audiences, anyway. Pop junkies will get a premium rush from Schumacher’s follow-up to Batman and Robin. What to make, for instance, of Catherine Keener’s thankless turn as the distraught Wife of a Cop on the Edge?* Did she bring anything extraordinary to the role? Or did I just imagine she did, based on performances she’s delivered in the intervening decades?

Impossible to say for sure.

Then there’s the Three Degrees of Face/Off factor: Keener fills Joan Allen’s slot from the ’97 John Woo blockbuster, also starring Cage. Also, 8MM’s antagonist is played by an actor who also appeared as a rival of Cage’s character in that film (even though John Travolta played Cage in those scenes**).

Speaking of unintentional crossovers, is it possible that Schumacher and Walker are big True Romance fans? How else to explain the appearance of James Gandolfini as a murderous scumbag, and the main villain’s assertion that he likes killing people in order to watch their expression change?

The no-fun answer, of course, is “coincidence”.

Then there's 8MM's bizarre ideas about the trajectory of home video. The 8MM film is practically a Maguffin, since no other 8MM films appear in the movie (there is also, given the age of the supposed crime, no reason for the murder to have been captured on such arcane media). The currency of Welles' underworld is VHS tapes. One character makes a passing reference to snuff films making their way onto the Internet, but it's worth noting that disc technology, which dominated the consumer market for nearly two decades in the wake of VHS, doesn't even get a nod. It's as if, on top of everything else, 8MM is secretly an alternate-reality fantasy.

The movie's pièce de résistance, though, is Joaquin Phoenix as Max California, Welles’ scrappy tour guide through the underbelly of illegal entertainment. Again, his performance may only excite pop historians that get a thrill tracking the careers of rare child actors who develop into Oscar-nominated powerhouses. Indeed, I experienced another bout of the Keener Problem during 8MM's climax, assuming that what happens to Max California doesn't really happen to him, based on what I know of characters Joaquin Phoenix became known for playing in later years. When I realized that Walker hadn't planted a climactic twist in his screenplay, and that I'd simply been watching an oddly earnest performance from a young actor who was not long for these kinds of roles--honestly, part of me got giddy.

You don't read much about giddiness in criticism of movies about kidnapping and murder, but that's just another checkmark in 8MM's "Plus" column. I don't know if I would've given a damn about this film in 1999. All I have is my reaction in the modern context, and it's pass-the-popcorn positive.

Thank God for that.

Who wants to rewind the tape on joy?

*You’re right: Welles isn’t a cop, but he fits the archetype.

**Those who’ve never seen Face/Off are right to assume these are the words of a crazy person.

Wednesday
Jan022019

First Reformed (2018)

Void Where Prohibited

Throw a handful of popcorn and you'll hit several films about middle-aged men grappling with existential crises. This phenomenon is genre-agnostic. From Tony Stark's superhero-ethics quandaries to Jackson Maine's struggle to keep his life from becoming a country song, I've seen this story a hundred (thousand) times, and in about as many forms. But I've rarely seen it presented with as much brilliant, questioning depth as in Paul Schrader's First Reformed.

Ethan Hawke stars as Ernst Toller, an upstate New York minister whose congregation is as thin as his self-esteem. Besides grappling with a dead son, a divorce, alcoholism, and nagging pains in both his gut and spirit, Toller must prepare for his church's 250th anniversary re-dedication (which is being overseen by a local mega-church and sponsored by a fossil fuel magnate) and counsel a troubled young couple who are expecting their first child.

Schrader begins with a gimmick: Toller has resolved to keep a journal of unedited thoughts for a full year, the contents of which are available to the audience and God by way of Hawke's detached voice-over. We see the pastor's daily routines, his nightly binges, and his forced composure when dealing with his boss/benefactor (Cedric The Entertainer, framed in a perpetual fish-eye closeup that underscores the weird duality of holy service and corporatism). We also catch glimpses of his former self, as he tries to walk a fanatical environmentalist from the doorstep of violent activism into the more hopeful (but equally problematic) realm of fatherhood.

The narration becomes Schrader's dramatized prayer, offering up Toller's fears and frustrations to a force that may (or may not) give meaning to the seemingly random world it created. Later on, the truth of the film's structure really hits home. We begin with an outline that appears to have been painstakingly written by a master creator. Gradually, Toller loses all sight of his already shaky guiding principles, and becomes obsessed with what amounts to a secular religion. From here, the film's conception of reality breaks apart. Narrative and visual language become polluted, marked by expulsions of pent-up rage, erotic hallucinations, and a climax in which damnation symbolizes rebirth.

That's one interpretation, anyway. First Reformed ends abruptly, leaving us to wonder about the master plan we'd been led to believe existed at the outset. Ultimately, the audience's frustration is Toller's, too: Sadly, if there is a "higher power" at work, its only interest in us may resemble the marginal fascination of gradually applying heat to corn kernels and watching them explode.

Monday
Dec242018

Vice (2018)

Like an idiot, I expected Vice to be a Dick Cheney biopic. Writer/director Adam McKay follows up his powerful and informative housing-crash drama The Big Short with a cartoon, a red-meat polemic aimed strictly at progressives whose political memory drops out between late 2008 and early 2016. Speaking of Barack Obama, the best way to describe this film's disappointing lopsidedness is to imagine a right-leaning McKay crafting a seering POTUS 44 biopic: We open on an aimless black kid snorting cocaine in the 1970s. Later, he ascendeds to the presidency on a wave of identity politics and aspirational charm. He leaves office having overseen unprecedented journalist prosecutions and deportations, and an expansion of his predecessor’s war campaigns into so many countries that we nearly ran out of bombs. All true. But weaving a context-free narrative from speculation and bullet points doesn’t make you a historian. It makes you Dinesh D’Souza.

Tuesday
Dec182018

Revenge (2018)

George Carlin once said, "I can prove to you that rape is funny. Just imagine Porky Pig raping Elmer Fudd." In a sense, Revenge is the movie version of that joke. Writer/director Coralie Fargeat never asks us to laugh at sexual violence in her story about a mistress and a millionaires' hunting retreat gone wrong. But she insists on a levity-as-catharsis atmosphere in details both explicit (four people lose as much blood as forty people) and mundane (in one scene, the main villain's wardrobe matches his throw pillows, sofa, and tacky couch-painting). Though the ass-shots are gratuitous and the gore will make even die-hard horror fans queasy, Fargeat's hard-driving, midnight-movie attitude is so thoroughly coated in commercial gloss that an Autobot leaping out of the Moroccan-desert backdrop would not have felt out of place. This is I Spit on Your Grave for the age of Agency and iffy attention spans.

Sunday
Nov252018

Vox Lux (2018)

If Lars von Trier had re-imagined The Neon Demon as another iteration of A Star is Born, then abandoned the project half-way through (necessitating a Vonnegut-style narration by Willem Dafoe to fill in gaping theme/plot/character chasms), the wobbly product would be a dead ringer for Vox Lux. Brady Corbet's follow-up to 2015's criminally underseen The Childhood of a Leader has a higher-watt cast (including some von Trier alumni), a bigger-looking budget, and ambitions of critiquing everything from pop culture to gun culture to Trump culture. Sia wrote the music for this film about a vapid, angry chanteuse (Natalie Portman) whose rise to fame might have been supernaturally inspired. But Sia is not a vapid artist, and hearing her deliberately forgettable tunes only compounds the ennui as Vox Lux, like its protagonist, fumbles drunkenly and disgracefully from audacious heights, creating as fleeting a story as last week's (or yesterday's) pop scandal.