Thursday, July 28, 2011

8MM

You never can tell which Nicolas Cage is going to show up in his movies.  Will it be the Academy Award-winning actor?  Usually not.  Will it be the dead-eyed action hero?  You've got a decent chance of that, but Vegas odds are always on Nicolas Cage, the ridiculous over-actor.  When you combine those odds with the chances of a post-Batman and Robin Joel Schumacher directing a good movie, you get 8MM.  Of course, Cage and Schumacher could have theoretically teamed up for an over-the-top action romp, full of ridiculous explosions and tough guy dialogue; it wouldn't have been very good, but it would have been watchable.  Instead, this is a movie about snuff films, which are by definition not full of hilarity.
Yeah, that's how I react to Nicolas Cage movies, too.

Tom Welles (Nicolas Cage) is a private detective that specializes in seedy cases in which his photos and research frequently end up as evidence in divorce proceedings.  I bet his wife loves his job.  One day, he gets a call to visit a new widow.  Her late husband left her a vast fortune, but she found something odd in his safe: an 8MM film that depicted a rape culminating in what appears to be murder.  The widow wants Welles to find out whether the murder was real or staged, no matter the cost.  After assuring her that snuff films are just an urban legend, Welles agrees to take the case, expecting to uncover a privately-financed movie with some fancy special effects.  What he finds does not support that theory.  Welles does some boring grunt work and manages to stumble across a missing persons photo that resembles the girl from the movie.  As odds-defying as that it, Welles manages to track down her family, discover evidence in her bedroom that neither her family nor the police found, and learn that she went to Hollywood.  As earth-shaking as that concept may be --- a runaway girl who starred in a porn film went to California?  Gasp! --- Welles quickly realized that he did not know how to dig any deeper into this case without help.  Enter Max California (Joaquin Phoenix).
...and he works in a porn shop?  Chick magnet!
Max is a failed musician and belly shirt aficionado who works the counter in a dingy sex shop.  Welles hires Max to help him enter the pornography underworld and the two begin to piece together who could have made a snuff film and who would have acted in it.  Hint: if you see a recognizable actor being questioned by Nicolas Cage in this movie, he's probably involved in the snuff film.
I'd be sweating bullets, too, if this was the best role I could get.

The acting in 8MM is definitely not for fans of subtlety.  Nicolas Cage spends a lot of time grimacing and looking tired.  I don't blame him.  His character had to watch hours and hours of low-budget weird porn before he found enough clues to track down the killers.  Joaquin Phoenix was a little better, but that's just by comparison, and his character's costumes were pretty ridiculous.  I'm not saying that people in California don't wear baggy leather pants every day with their proto-Ed Hardy T-shirts, but there isn't a scene in this movie where I don't want to smack Phoenix just on general principles.  James Gandolfini was fine as a low-life porn producer and Peter Stormare was his typically slimy self as a high-end low-life porn producer, but this is a film that relied heavily on Cage and Phoenix.
Creepy: a new fragrance by Peter Stormare
There are a few other actors in small roles, but none of them have any great impact on the quality of the film.  Anthony Heald is unsympathetic (surprise, surprise), Catherine Keener is kind of bitchy, Norman Reedus is a loser with a bad haircut, and Chris Bauer wears a gimp outfit.  It is worth noting that Bauer's character, The Machine, has occasionally popped up in the sports world.  San Francisco Giants closer --- and professional sports' most entertaining personality, since the retirement of Shaquille O'Neal --- Brian Wilson is apparently a fan.  You can spot Chris "The Machine" Bauer's likeness at around the 4:20 mark.


So...that's kind of weird.  Anyway...

There's really not much that goes right with 8MM.  Director Joel Schumacher placed himself in a tough spot.  The obvious trapping that comes with making a movie about snuff films is that the movie winds up being as exploitative as the snuff films themselves.  I will give Schumacher credit for not falling into that trap.  However, to avoid seeming exploitative, I think 8MM loses its teeth. 

If this isn't a movie that is meant to shock you, then what is it?  A ludicrously tangled mystery?  An expose on pornography's seedy underbelly?  An argument for the banality of evil?  You could choose any of those, but none make this a satisfying movie.  The mystery is too easily untangled, possibly because the mystery focused on "Who made this snuff film?" instead of "Why was this snuff film made?"  The dark side of porn is a potentially disturbing focus, but 8MM just has Cage wander through a couple creepy basement VHS flea markets; nothing is really said or done about anything but this one particular snuff film.  Perhaps sensing that this movie is neither shocking nor captivating, Schumacher changes the tone of the film, transforming Cage from an investigator to an avenger in the final act.  It is here that the bad guys explain themselves, and that explanation --- which is meant to be chilling --- is simply underwhelming.
Less sensual than it looks.

Personally, I can't think of a story that involved snuff films that I would have enjoyed.  Maybe that's just me, though.  I assumed that 8MM would try to be disturbing and maybe take a stand on the issue (murder is bad, perhaps?).  It doesn't.  It's a detective story where the audience is only allowed to see snippets of what Nic Cage is reacting to; that means that Cage's acting needs to convey our disgust for us, and he turns in a very melodramatic performance that undermines that notion.  I'm not saying that I need to see the damn titular movie --- not seeing a prized object can work wonders, as in The Maltese Falcon and Pulp Fiction.  The script and the acting weren't anywhere near where they needed to be to pull that off, though.  Hell, Cage's character lost his private detective credibility in the beginning of the film, when he hides his smoking habit from his wife by spraying air freshener, just like a fifteen year-old.  Hint: change your clothes and hide your ashtrays, too, dumbass.  If he can't do that convincingly, how is the audience supposed to buy into anything else he does in this film?

This movie just plain sucks.  There is nothing quite like a film that is trying to be edgy and watching it fail.  I would have enjoyed laughing at 8MM, but it is a joyless train wreck that is at least thirty minutes too long.  Nicolas Cage does a poor job acting, which is not terribly surprising, and he appears to have no fun doing it.  His character is stupid and without charm.  The script is surprisingly dull and the supporting cast is mostly unmemorable.  This is a surprisingly bad movie with a surprisingly bad story, and I went in with low expectations.  The only redeeming quality this film has --- aside from a surprising second life in sports interviews --- is that it was too draining and incompetent to earn my hatred.

2 comments:

  1. 8MM sounds like what John Huston wanted to do with The Big Sleep but certainly never was allowed to during the 1940s. As a contrast, how about comparing 8MM to Videodrome, which is pretty much the same film in a completely different direction (and dimension.)

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