Monthly Archives: September 2008

88 Minutes (2008)

Typically you can smell something wrong when a movie is continually delayed or held from release for well over a year. The serial killer thriller 88 Minutes actually began filming during the fall of 2005 (!). It was released in the United States well after it had been available on DVD in Europe for over a year. After watching all 108 minutes of 88 Minutes, it’s easy to see why the studio and the film’s astounding 20 producers (!!) were trying to hide this from public eyes.

Dr. Jack Gramm (Al Pacino) is the top forensic psychiatrist in Seattle. His testimony is responsible for convicting Jon Forster (Neal McDonough) of a death sentence. Many years later, Jon is now hours away from execution and still professing his innocence, claiming the real “Seattle Slayer” is still out there. Gramm works as a college professor and he can still woo the young ladies and beds them regularly. His assistant (Amy Brenneman) informs Gramm that a woman in his class has been murdered and her murder is patterned after the “Seattle Slayer” killings. Gramm believes that Forster is collaborating with someone on the outside to cast doubt on his conviction. Then as Gramm walks to class he gets an anonymous phone call that tells him he has 88 minutes to live. Gramm scrambles to try and use the time to figure out who is targeting him, framing him, and why. Could it be his assistant, his T.A. (Alicia Witt), his skeptical students (Benjamin McKenzie, Leelee Sobieski), the skeezy campus cop, or maybe the starting second baseman for the Seattle Mariners?

First off, the time frame doesn’t work at all. 88 minutes is too short a time frame to do crack investigation, and Gramm runs all over the city of Seattle at least three times without getting caught in any gridlock. The movie establishes a real-time ticking clock but then decides to follow a different set of time. Occasionally the movie will be faster than real life, meaning that it says 10 minutes have passed when only say 6 have, and occasionally the movie will be slower than real life, like when the third act probably takes all of 10 minutes in the film’s universe. It’s not consistent and points out the flaw of the structure. The 88-minute countdown was supposed to add a feeling of suspense but what it does is add an extra level of incredulity. There is no way that 88 minutes would be a sufficient time for the killer to stage murder and mayhem around a large metropolitan city known for inclement weather. Seriously, is the killer trying to set unreasonable personal goals? Why not a three-hour window of time? That way the killer could have a healthy planning period without worrying that everything would collapse if they got stuck in traffic. Also, the 88-minute time frame allows glimpses into the anal retentive nature of our killer. Gramm is harassed by phone calls updating him on his declining time, but what’s truly special is when the killer defaces Gramm’s car saying how long he has to live to the minute. The killer must have known to the second when Gramm would come by his car because had the doc taken a different route, gotten a coffee, gone to the bathroom, or performed whatever other million actions then the death threat would be inaccurate.

Next, all the women are helpless sycophants. They think the world of Gramm and several of these twenty-something college girls have big time crushes on the aged Pacino. It’s hard to take seriously the idea that Gramm, in this context, is still a Lothario that he can bed any coed he sets his sleepy eyes upon. The fact that the movie opens with him waking up from his latest and naked conquest already gives the film a squeamish start, but when multiple characters all confess to having crushes on Gramm then the whole idea transforms into an uncomfortable stroking of Pacino’s vanity and virility. I suppose I shouldn’t expect too much from the plethora of female characters because they’re all in need of comfort and every one of them winds up a pitiful damsel in distress. We’re supposed to believe these are strong and capable women, all of them working alongside a criminal expert so perhaps they know a thing or two about self-defense. They fawn over the man and then inexplicably wind up in danger. Occasionally the women will experience dramatic setbacks and they all take a backseat toward getting a hug from Gramm. These women react to the sight of death in puzzling ways and then will just as easily move on to another topic.

This is the kind of wretched movie where a flashback tragedy is defined by a memory so inane that it becomes insulting. Gramm keeps flashing back to a simple memory of his long deceased younger sister; she is running along the bank of a rather filthy looking river with a kite trailing inches behind her. Now, 88 Minutes is the type of movie where she has to giggle innocently and say something ridiculously non-descript, which in this case is, “[Giggle], dad look at the kite.” Of course Gramm is not her father (or is he?) and her call to look at the kite makes little sense because 1) its string is about three feet so it cannot go very high at all, and 2) it’s usually flying lower than the girl. I just find this image, this idea, this whole flashback construct to be emblematic of how truly awful and derivative and excruciating 88 Minutes can be.

I must confess there is one scene in 88 Minutes that I will remember for the rest of my life specifically because of how ridiculously appalling it is. Few scenes cause me to simultaneously stare in wide-eyed amazement and resist the urge to vomit. Here goes. Gramm is confronted by his FBI agent pal (William Forsythe) who has some bad news for Gramm. It turns out Gramm’s semen was found inside the “vaginal cavity” of the victim. We know Gramm wasn’t sexually involved with her because he was sexually involved with our opening naked escort lady, Sara Pollard (Leah Caims). Gramm then argues that someone out there framed him by killing Sara Pollard (oh don’t act surprised), retrieving Gramm’s semen from inside her, and then injecting it into the “vaginal cavity” of the victim. Hearing an actor of Pacino’s credit verbalize this theory is akin to having the “sex talk” with your parents, nay, grandparents — it’s just so intensely uncomfortable to watch. I just picture a lab tech with a long syringe that has to run around Seattle to make his semen import/export deadlines. This one icky moment stands out as the most ridiculously awful in a movie that is nothing but collective scenes of awful.

88 Minutes has no characters, only red herrings. Each of the numerous supporting characters is given the chance to act suspiciously and for no real good reason. Gramm takes his turn going through accusing nearly every supporting character he comes across as being in league with Forster. The screenplay even establishes characters like the painfully named Guy LaForge (Stephen Moyer, True Blood‘s Bill the Vampire) who serves no purpose other than to wear a leather jacket and squint in backgrounds.

Forget anything approaching characterization because writer Gary Scott Thompson (The Fast and the Furious) has created a script that is woeful in every department, including thrills. The reveal of the killer is mishandled, as is most every plot point, and I’m at a total loss at the rationale of attempting to commit murder in a building the killer called in a bomb threat. Yeah there may not be students but there will be plenty of police sniffing around. More than half of the scenes involve people talking on cell phones. The dialogue is unintentionally hilarious more often than not, with lines like “Someone has penetrated my most secret place” and, “If I can’t forgive you I don’t deserve you,” and the killer taunting, “You see Jacko, I’m a true believer.” Need I remind you of the “vaginal cavity” conversation? This is a complete laughable mess that would have been just another half-rate direct-to-TV movies airing late nights on cable channels were it not for Pacino’s involvement.

Pacino doesn’t even try to hide his disillusionment with the movie. He comes across as sleepy-eyed to the point of being a zombie with a permanent case of bedhead (seriously, Pacino’s crazy hair steals the show). The man is going through the motions to collect a paycheck, and he even gets a couple scenes to work up the frothy barking Pacino voice that he has settled into for the past 15 years of acting. He never seems to be worried that he only has so many minutes to live, so why should we bother sweating? The rest of the cast is awful and they were likely lured to this doomed project because of the chance to work alongside Pacino. Leelee Sobieski must be singled out for being particularly atrocious, especially when she tries to play a tough girl. This has got to be her worst performance since she started speaking. Then again, she has worked with Uwe Boll (Fun fact: one of 88 Minutes‘ many producers is Boll’s longtime producer).

88 Minutes is bad in every possible manner of filmmaking. This is an embarrassment for everyone whose name’s is attached to this film. From the overly anxious musical score, to the choppy editing, to the lackluster cinematography, to the abysmal story and outlandish acting and the lazy direction, 88 Minutes is a cinematic catastrophe. It should only be watched at a safe distance and only with the intention of derisive enjoyment. Because while this movie fails at every level it may just end up becoming the funniest comedy of the year.

Nate’s Grade: D

21 (2008)

Glitzy, breezy, and 100 percent predictable, 21 is a simple con movie that goes through the motions with hyper realism. The most interesting part of the film, by far, is learning the systems that help these coeds fleece Vegas for thousands of dollars. In fact, the true story is far more interesting than this typical tale about a good kid who gets a big ego, pushes his true friends away, is humbled, and then learns a lesson while getting the girl too. What’s a MIT engineer want to go to Harvard med school for? And for that matter, you’re telling me there are no scholarships out there to brainy MIT students? Whatever the case, 21 will pass the time nicely without damaging your brain. The card games are ramped up with zooming camerawork and flashy special effects by director Robert Luketic (Legally Blonde), but it’s all window dressing to an interesting story that was white washed into a bland but undeniably commercial movie. It’s a fine time but, like Vegas, will leave you empty in the end. Still, you could do worse than overly stylized con movies about math whiz card sharks.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Street Kings (2008)

This is a wildly overwrought and sleazy drama is hoping to come across as edgy but everything is so overdone. It fulfills all the requisite elements of the modern crime picture; double crosses, forlorn anti-heroes, bloody violence, but Street Kings misses the mark big time when it comes to any nuance. Every beat of this murky, convoluted dirty cops mystery is plain and obvious. If you cannot guess within minutes who the eventual culprits will be then you haven’t seen enough movies. Every character is a cliché of a cliché, every unrestrained actor is constantly speaking in nothing but exclamation marks, and the dialogue is some of the worst I’ve heard all year. Keanu Reeves is a listless leading man who is blank and lifeless, unable to wrestle the dark and complicated emotions needed for a “cop on the edge” role. I can practically feel Forest Whitaker’s spittle every time he speaks. Street Kings feels like a route retread of rogue cop pictures, which are director David Ayer’s specialty. It wants to shine a light on the seedy underbelly of the law but it can’t stop from feeling like a lobotomized version of L.A. Confidential (Note to Ayer: Jay Mohr + mustache = an arrangement that benefits neither party).

Nate’s Grade: D

Ghost Town (2008)

It seems the genesis for this flick was like someone asked what The Sixth Sense would be like with jokes (or someone rented Topper and said, “Why not again?”). The idea of a misanthropic man who sees dead people is elevated by the sheer comic genius of star Ricky Gervais. The famous British comedian is better known across the pond for his dry, sarcastic wit and penchant for awkward, pained comedy, but Ghost Town is a great mainstream introduction to the comedic chops of this squat Englishman. The film follows a familiar trajectory and even introduces a romance for the man who loathes other people, but Gervais and co-writer/director David Koepp make it worthwhile and endearing. I could watch Gervais and his beaming co-star Tea Leoni crack each other up for hours. The comedic premise is finely explored (there are more than enough scenes of people looking odd at Gervais talking to himself). The movie tilts toward being a supernatural romantic comedy in the second half but manages to stay snappy and character-driven. It’s a sweet movie with some nice comic jabs that don’t dwell on nastiness. Ghost Town is a charming and engaging light comedy that might cause a few sniffles in between chuckles. I have a warm place in my heart for this movie.

Nate’s Grade: B

Lust, Caution (2008)

Ang Lee’s period romance is no Brokeback Mountain, though there is a heavy supply of thrusting. Lust, Caution is an NC-17 rated peak into life in China under Japanese occupation in the 1930s. Most of the film follows a school drama club that decides to become freedom fighters. They scheme to murder Chinese officials working with the Japanese government, and one gal (Wei Tang) is tapped to seduce and then kill a high-ranking official. For such a controversial movie, the sex scenes don’t even begin until 90 minutes into the flick (though our undercover heroine is deflowered by her drama club peer for the good of her mission). The movie is exquisitely shot, handsome in its details, and the lead performance by Tang is exceptional, simmering with conflicting emotions and some real sensual heat. The sex scenes doe have an erotic potency to them and they are more explicit than the kinder gentler fare found in typical Hollywood movies that consist of only seeing the slow-motion ecstasy result from a man on top. The offbeat love story gestates too late in the film’s run, leaving little time to delve deeper. Too much of the movie concerns back-story following the drama club’s road to becoming revolutionaries, and while it’s interesting it’s also rather needless on second thought. There’s a nine-minute difference between the R-rated version and the theatrical NC-17 cut; what’s in those nine minutes I do not know since I saw the edited version, but I’ve been told it’s a lot of thrusting. In lusty terms, the movie is heavy on foreplay and too short on a satisfying climax.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Grace is Gone (2008)

This Iraq War drama means well but it comes across as manipulative and morally questionable. John Cusack stars as a former military man who just found out his wife, on active duty in Iraq, has been killed. The bulk of the film’s conflict deals with how Cusack will tell his two daughters that mommy is not coming home again. Instead of being upfront with his children, he takes them out of school and whisks them away on a family trip to an amusement park. His reasoning is that he wants to squeeze in a few more happy memories before the kids hear the news. To me, this is irresponsible and psychologically damaging; those kids will resent their father holding onto such important information while he encouraged his kids to shop in ignorance. The film is about 80 minutes of watching a guillotine hang over someone’s head, just waiting for the moment to hit. It can get rather uncomfortable. Somewhere in this misguided drama is a poignant look at the domestic cost of the Iraq War from the family’s perspective, a perspective yet to be fully articulated by the movies. Instead, Grace is Gone is a well-acted but contrived drama that favors delaying the pains of reality to the point of incredulity.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Be Kind, Rewind (2008)

Be Kind, Rewind is a celebration of the love of movies and moviemaking, but it wants to shoot for a deeper message and stumbles. When the movie concentrates on remaking famous movies like Ghostbusters, Robocop, and Rush Hour 2, the movie has a ramshackle charm and great comedic spirit. When the film strays to tell a tale about community pride is when the movie gets dull and leaden. The concept of cheap, quick, homemade versions of Hollywood movies (the YouTube-ification if you will) is fun and Jack Black and Mos Def are definitely having fun in the process. But the movie has too many other elements that just don’t work together. The history of a local jazz legend feels awkward and bogs down the movie’s enjoyment. Director Michel Gondry can only do so much with his quirky visual sensibilities before you start to get bored. Be Kind, Rewind is occasionally entertaining and works best when it’s ripping off other movies than trying to stand on its own merits.

Nate’s Grade: C+

W. (2008)

Director Oliver Stone’s first draft at history is never boring but it’s rarely insightful. The film portrays George W. Bush (Josh Brolin) as a stubborn and simple man trying to live outside his abilities and the long shadow of his successful and emotionally distant father. George W. was not the favored son, as he is routinely reminded, and Ma and Pa Bush express their frustration. And yet the son who did not have his family’s support and acumen accomplished what no one else in the family had. He won reelection. He toppled Saddam Hussein. And then it all came crashing down. Ultimately, who was this movie made for? The detractors of Bush will view the film being too light, providing a psychological context that humanizes the man amongst his mistakes. You may even feel some sympathy as George W. repeatedly tries to earn his father’s approval. The movie is not a partisan or mean-spirited skewering. The fans of Bush will consider the film to be a cheap shot that restrings famous blunders and transplants Bush malapropisms into new settings. People may take offense at the idea of the current Iraq War being a result of unresolved daddy issues. Seriously, for a two-hour movie spanning the life and career of the most reviled modern day president, did Stone need to include the moment where Bush almost choked to death on a pretzel? Over the 2000 election debacle? Over the Air National Guard? Over 9/11?

W. lacks a strong point of view and the film’s timeline closes too soon, only going so far as January 2004, not even the halfway point for a two-term president who has only sunk lower in national approval from that moment. A miniseries would be a better medium to explore the failures and calamities and personalities of the Bush Administration. Brolin is terrific in the title role and he never dips into parody. The rest of the actors are hit-or-miss and the movie becomes somewhat of a game of identifying famous historical figures in their one-scene appearances. My biggest surprise was how much I felt emotionally connected to the first President Bush, played by James Cromwell in a performance that doesn’t even attempt to imitate the real-life figure. Stone and screenwriter Stanley Weiser (Wall Street) certainly don’t hide the characters they connect with (Colin Powell, often the voice of reason, is given a stirring speech calling for caution). Certain creative license is taken to provide dream sequences that can point toward the inner turmoil of Bush, like when his father admonishes him for destroying 200 years of the family’s name over the Iraq War. Overall, W. is an empathetic and sometimes dithering portrayal of the 43rd United States’ president that could have succeeded if it had more to say.

Nate’s Grade: B-

The Duchess (2008)

I think I understand the real appeal of costume dramas. No matter what else happens, the costume drama must seem smarter. You have actors, primarily British, waltzing in elaborate costuming in realistic historical settings, each offering demure statements and looking for love and acceptance in a time of chaste expression. You could place Saw 18 in that setting and it would automatically seem smarter. I think the ye olde setting for costume dramas automatically gives these films more plot leeway, but not every film actually proves that it should have earned that leeway. Saul Dibb’s handsomely mounted period drama The Duchess offers little beyond the superficial enjoyment of well-crafted costumes.

In 1770s England, young Georgina (Keira Knightley) has been betrothed to the older Duke of Devonshire (Ralph Fiennes). The newly minted 17-year-old Duchess of Devonshire is whisked away to live in a giant manor. The Duke is rather cold and seems uneasy with human interaction; he shows the most affection for his dogs. He expects Georgina to primarily bear him a son. Several daughters later, the Duke is engaged in affairs and siring illegitimate children. Georgina has become a star of the social sphere, and it is here that she befriends Bess Foster (Hayley Atwell), a woman who is trying to regain her children from her ex-husband. Things get even more complicated when the Duke takes a liking of Bess, and the two become an unofficial union. Georgina has had her only friend taken away and turned into a co-wife. The only solace for the Duchess is in her flirtatious relationship with a politician, Charles Grey (Dominic Cooper). Georgina feels like a prisoner in her own home and yet she cannot desert her children. What’s an oppressed woman to do in 18th century England? That answer should be sadly obvious.

The Duchess breaks no new ground and, in fact, treads water for the majority of its second half. Georgina was an independent spirit in a time that frowned upon breaking from conformity and tradition. As a woman, she was the victim of a double standard that allowed her husband to sleep with whomever he desired but she could not find physical comfort outside her loveless marriage. Marriage was widely viewed as a means to an end for male progeny, not the culmination of romantic love. Women were pressured into delivering male heirs, despite the fact that men are the ones who determine gender. Typically marriages were family arrangements for class and land ownership, so true passion was procured through marital affairs. I get it because I’ve read Jane Austen novels and seen dozens of period movies that have made the same stilted points. The Duchess presents Georgina as a feminist before her time and then a patriarchal society crushes her spirit. During the second half, when aristocratic life keeps producing heavy obstacles for Georgina, the movie just piles it on. I was left questioning what the point of all this corseted drama actually was.

After a while with my downtime I determined whom this movie is really for – hat enthusiasts. This is a Big Hat movie that puts other hat movies to shame. There are gigantic floppy hats, hats that look like fruit displays, hats that look like eighteen-layer cakes, hats that look like they have their own hat, hats with feathers zigging and zagging in every direction, and hats that look like they are consuming their host’s heads. If you work in the haberdashery industry or have an above average interest in hats and hat-related products, then run, don’t walk to The Duchess. You will be enraptured by the orgy of towering hats that jostle for screen time. Rarely are women seen without hats, so you truly will get your hat money’s worth over the course of the film’s two hours. If there were a specific Oscar category for Hat and Hat-like Accoutrement then The Duchess would dominate. I expect it will get nominated for Costumes, and really that seems like half the point in making these powdered wig period dramas.

I think the other point of The Duchess is to channel the modern story of Princess Diana, who is actually a distant relative of Georgina. The two seem to lead somewhat similar lives since they both married young, both had their husbands prefer the mistresses, both were fashion trend setters, both were beloved by the public, and after death both had their husbands remarry the mistresses. The tagline for the film is, “There were three people in her marriage,” a paraphrased quote that Princess Di said in an interview. The Di parallels seem to be all that the filmmakers intended to do with Georgina as a character; she is the least interesting person in her marriage. The Duke and Bess are far more complex and intriguing figures. I’m sure the Georgina biography that serves as the movie’s source is rich in Georgina characterization and personal detail, but all the movie cares about is establishing her as a marital martyr. There is more to this character but she just endures disappointment and punishment; I cannot fully engage with a character when their only personal attribute is suffering. The movie fails to present any notable reason why this woman of history deserves having a feature film.

Knightley seems to spend half her film life in corsets. I’m still undecided upon whether she possesses innate acting ability; to me she too often comes across as a pin-up with great cheekbones. That said her eyebrows do a great bit of acting in The Duchess. She has the habit of cocking one ever so slightly and imbuing a scene with a hint of sexual allure or mystique. They’re pretty thick eyebrows too. Knightley does acquit herself well with the material and I doubt this will be the last time I see her in a tremendous silk gown and a humongous hairdo. The most interesting actor is Fiennes because his character is so reserved and awkward in his own skin, so much must be said through the use of gestures, body language, and the perfect execution of line delivery. His character seems just as ill in his setting as Georgina. Atwell is given the most complex character to play. To say that Bess has conflicted loyalties is an understatement. She betrays Georgina but romancing the Duke can ensure that she sees her children once again. Bess should have been the centerpiece of the movie because, as presented, she is far more interesting with more dramatic conflicts and turmoil other than being wronged.

The Duchess is no more and no less than every other costumer period piece you’ve seen before. It starts well but then falls into boring and repetitious plotting (Georgina wants something, she’s denied, she wants something, she’s denied; rather, rinse, repeat, end). The Duchess will delight those in search of yet another unrequited period romance, but I feel that moviegoers should expect more from their entertainment that mechanically fulfilling the period-y checklist. The technical merits like the production art and the costumes, especially the hats, are first rate. There’s little feeling beneath all the fabulous fussing about. It’s too bad the actual drama couldn’t at least be as interesting as the hats.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Burn After Reading (2008)

The Coen brothers tend to follow serious works with silly, and now that they have a heap of Oscars from 2007’s No Country for Old Men audiences can expect extreme silliness. Burn After Reading is a farce in the best sense of the word; it’s a send-up of the spy thriller where morons inhabit every role. The incompetent characters repeatedly act impulsive and the whole movie’s tone is cranked to outlandish heights. The score by Carter Burwell is like a continuous thundercloud that underscores the ridiculous and faux ominous atmosphere. The Coens have been accused of ridiculing their characters and being too detached and clinical as screenwriters. I do not believe this for a moment. Anyone who watches Burn After Reading can tell that the Coens love their characters, especially Brad Pitt’s ebullient personal trainer. Pitt is a comic joy and brings fresh life to his fun character, a highly cheerful doofus who can’t stay still. Even the funky way Pitt walks is worth a giggle. Burn After Reading takes some surprising twists and turns and could have been much longer than 96 total minutes. The Coens go to such terrific lengths establishing great oddball characters and great comedic scenarios, and then the whole movie just comes to a close when it feels like it’s hitting another gear. Still, Burn After Reading may be no masterpiece but its yet another unconventional and mostly entertaining comedy from the reliably quirky Coen brothers.

Nate’s Grade: B+

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