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Hollywood isn't up to snuff in "8MM"

By Jim Ridley and Noel Murray

MARCH 8, 1999:  Poor Michael Powell. In 1960, the esteemed British director of The Red Shoes made a movie called Peeping Tom. It concerns a photographer, Mark (Carl Boehm), who films pretty girls through a movie camera with two special attachments: a knife that stabs the subject when the film rolls, and a mirror for her to watch. Mark then watches the films in his basement, searching for the perfect expression of fear. Today Peeping Tom looks remarkably prescient in its linking of sex, death, and the viewer's own passive voyeurism. At the time, though, even as Alfred Hitchcock was reaping the rewards of the similar Psycho, Powell was vilified. He made only four more films before his death in 1990.

Had Powell been a sharp guy like Joel Schumacher, the director of 8MM, he could've used sicker material and gotten a budget bigger than all his films put together--and, to swipe a line from John Prine, all he would've had to lose was his point of view. Well, he would've had to change a few things--starting with the similarity between his pervy movie buff and the popcorn-munchers who pay to see his exploits. Then, like Schumacher, Powell could've seen his grisly images flickering in mall cinemas all over America, instead of in the one or two cities where Peeping Tom is currently getting an extremely limited rerelease.

To do that, however, Powell would've ended up making Peeping Tom Lite--which pretty much sums up 8MM, a weak, murky shocker that fails to deliver on its own grimy threats. You know you're living in a great country when the mainstream film industry ponies up something like $60 million for a movie about snuff films, the mythical underground porn movies in which women are slaughtered during sex. But what's repellent about 8MM isn't so much its subject as the way the movie packages and sells this hard candy to its audience.

In its basic premise and its unconvincing moralizing, 8MM recalls the leering sexposs of smut's golden era, in which a crusading investigator inevitably played your tour guide through Sin City. Here he's detective Tom Welles, played by Nicolas Cage, who's hired to find out whether a dead millionaire's 8mm snuff film is real. Going underground as a buyer, Welles uncovers a black-market industry linked to slimy auteur Dino Velvet (Peter Stormare) and a masked snuff star known only as "the Machine."

Even in 8MM's own script, snuff movies are dismissed as urban legend. It's hard to get worked up about them these days--not when every calamity is camcorder material, not in the age of video nasties and America's Deadliest Chases. Our duplicity in watching this stuff, on the other hand, is a story worth investigating. Had 8MM made Welles, our surrogate, more of an active participant in the snuff scene, the movie might've been a powerfully sick exploration of the casual atrocities we've come to accept as viewers. Instead, Cage recoils like Jerry Falwell at Wigstock, cueing us that we're all on his moral high ground. Fear not: you still get to see a little B&D, some doctored Filipino roughies, and a stripper, and you can fool yourself into feeling morally superior at the same time.

Here, as in his overpraised Seven, screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker mixes chamber-of-horrors jolts with dime-store philosophizing about human nature and Ultimate Evil. Yet what's on display here isn't the banality of evil so much as the evil of banality. Every wrong turn is exacerbated by Joel Schumacher, whose style is to art-direct a movie to death in every insignificant detail while fumbling the big picture. The porn underworld he presents is so fashionably hellish it's ludicrous: Every set looks like a Nine Inch Nails video.

Then again, would 8MM really be any better if it were better made? The creepiest thing about this litany of ho-hum depravities is that we'd pay to see it, and that we'd still feel unaffected afterward. As an antidote, I recommend an Austrian film called Funny Games, just out on video. Two clean-cut youths invite themselves into a vacation home, and for the next 90 minutes they beat, stab, and torture the family inside. The kicker comes when they address you, the viewer, as their implicit accomplice, at one point helpfully rewinding for you. I resented every moment of Funny Games, but it asks the question 8MM dodges: What will you accept in the name of entertainment, and why?

--Jim Ridley



Mob mentality

Sometimes, to create popular entertainment, you need only combine two elements that no one ever thought of combining before. Slasher flicks and space opera? You've got Alien, my friend. Big special effects and period romance? Call me Titanic. Mafia poses and psychiatrist jokes? Bring on Analyze This, the latest cinematic Reese's Cup.

The shtick in Analyze This is simple. Robert De Niro plays a mob boss suffering from anxiety attacks a few weeks before a big organized crime meeting. He seeks the counsel of a therapist (Billy Crystal), who is a few weeks away from marrying a Miami newscaster (Lisa Kudrow, who illuminates every scene she enters). There's very little plot, a bare minimum of clever detail, and aside from a shared character trait between the two protagonists, there's not much depth.

Instead, we get scene after scene of De Niro interrupting Crystal's daily affairs to ask advice, and the two of them sparring over the benefits of applying analytical thought to the actions of a cold-blooded killer. De Niro alternates between what my wife calls "the face"--a pained, brooding grimace that indicates his character's mind has gone slack--and a gruff, sarcastic patter that underlines his cunning. Meanwhile, Crystal plays his character as timid but indignant, afraid of being killed but unwilling to tell the Don what he wants to hear. It's a repetitive routine, but it works because of the distinctive personality conflict.

Billy Crystal's recent work, on film as well as in his occasional TV appearances, has been marked by an undercurrent of misery. It's as though his faltering movie career and the obligation of being the Academy's favorite dancing monkey on Oscar night has sapped his enthusiasm for performing. Luckily, Analyze This largely requires Crystal to be sullen. As for De Niro, the rage bubbling beneath his attempts to be polite makes for lively comedy, even if the film follows him a little too far into the world of mob violence and 12-letter profanity.

Director Harold Ramis has made brighter films (the sublime Groundhog Day), but he's also made worse (Club Paradise). All he really has to do here is pass out the script (by too many chefs to compliment), point the camera at his stars, and feed us their mix of chocolate and peanut butter. As it happens, this confection is easy to stomach.

--Noel Murray


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