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If You Dance with the Devil: 8MM (Eight Millimeter), the Film

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Crime films, frequently inspired by crime fiction, concentrates on criminals, their crimes, and (sometimes) on the detection of those crimes. The famed Noir films of the 1940s and 1950s, such as The Killers and Double Indemnity, feature psychologically complex, morally dubious, and world-weary male protagonists who are unable to escape their pasts, even if they did not actually commit any crimes. Contemporary crime films, whether drama like The Usual Suspects and The Godfather, or a dark comedy like In Bruges — all of which were Oscar-winners — often feature protagonists who are hardened criminals themselves. Viewers are sometimes outraged by such sympathetic portrayals of criminals, as some audience members were when they saw Abel Ferrara’s King of New York, in which the protagonist Frank White, played by Christopher Walken, insists to the detectives pursuing him that he is “just a businessman.”

The 1999 crime film 8MM (Eight Millimeter), directed by Joel Schumacher from a screenplay by Andrew Kevin Walker (Seven), doesn’t present viewers with an already world-weary protagonist who is unable to escape his morally dubious past, nor with morally ambiguous criminals. In 8MM, the protagonist is initially a nice guy just trying to make a good living for him and his family, and the bad guys are really terribly bad bad guys, although they have some great lines. This crime film concentrates instead on its male protagonist, a private investigator searching for a missing teenage girl, as he descends into the dark world of underground, illegal pornography, only to dissolve into violence and criminal acts himself.

Nicholas Cage as Tom Welles, 8MM © Columbia Pictures

Tom Welles (Nicholas Cage, in his best dramatic role) lives with his wife Amy (Catherine Keener) and their baby daughter in a totally suburban, midwest neighborhood, from where he runs his home-based “surveillance” business, i.e., private investigations.

Catherine Keener, 8MM © Columbia Pictures

For some reason never clearly explained, the Welles family is having a difficult time financially, despite his steady employment taking photos of adulterous spouses and other misbehaving family members.

Enter wealthy, wheelchair-bound Mrs. Christian (Myra Carter), who has discovered something horrific in her late husband’s safe: an 8mm film that seems to portray a young girl being murdered. Though Welles reassures Widow Christian that “snuff films” — illegal pornographic films where someone is actually killed for the express purpose of the viewers’ sexual titillation — are more an “urban legend” and are usually faked, she offers unlimited funds to prove that the film is fake and the girl still alive. Welles explains that if he treats the girl as a “missing person,” he could gain more access to her identity, family, and whereabouts.

Though the family lawyer Longdale (Anthony Heald) is present at this initial meeting and has already seen the film in question, Welles tells Widow Christian that he will deal directly with her, and only with her. Welles believes that the money he earns proving this horrific “snuff film” is fake will enable him and his family to live comfortably and “happily ever after.”

Mother, Janet (Amy Morton) and Welles (Nicholas Cage) in runaway daughter’s room, 8MM © Columbia Pictures

Unfortunately, this is not a fairy tale, and the illegal porn film leads Welles into the desolate and horrifying world of runaway and abducted children. Once he identifies the girl in the film as Mary Anne Mathews (Jenny Powell), who left home after a fight with her still-grieving mother Janet (Amy Morton), he is able to track Mary Anne’s movements. When he finds her abandoned suitcase in a shelter, Tom begins to suspect that Mary Anne, who wanted to be a film star, may have ended up a victim of the porn industry.

Not the legitimate porn industry, however: the illegal one, where people in the films are actually raped, severely assaulted against their will, and sometimes, apparently, killed.

Joaquin Phoenix as Max, 8MM © Columbia Pictures

In an adult film rental / bookstore, complete with “battery-operated vaginas,” Tom meets the wise-cracking cashier Max (Joaquin Phoenix), who once aspired to be a musician but lost his band, and who reads Capote’s In Cold Blood at work by disguising the book with the cover of another, sleazier work. Max is quick-witted and intelligent, and because Tom looks so much like a law enforcement officer, he quickly learns that it would be impossible for him to learn anything about the darker side of the porn industry without Max’s help.

Nicholas Cage as Welles, and Joaquin Phoenix as Max, 8MM © Columbia Pictures

Even with Max at his side, however, Welles begins to learn just how dangerous the illegal porn industry is: the two are constantly assaulted and threatened with death themselves as they attempt to find “snuff films.”

James Gandolfini as Eddie, 8MM © Columbia Pictures

When Welles finds a sleazy talent scout, Eddie (James Gandolfini), who seems to recognize the missing Mary Anne from a photograph but who denies knowing her, Welles goes after Eddie by insinuating that he knows what Eddie and his pals did to the girl.

Peter Stormare as Dino Velvet, 8MM © Columbia Pictures

Eddie leads Welles and Max, now going by the code-name “Max California,” to New York and to an infamous illegal pornographer Dino Velvet (Peter Stormare). Velvet makes unique films for private viewing for healthy commissions, and his films always include the hooded man known as “Machine” (Chris Bauer), who appears in the 8mm film found in Mr. Christian’s safe and who seems to have killed the missing girl.

Chris Bauer as Machine, and Peter Stormare as Dino Velvet, 8MM © Columbia Pictures

In increasingly dark, sordid, and haunting environs, Welles pursues the missing girl and the men who made the purported “snuff film.” Plunging ever deeper into the dark world of illegal pornography, drifting away from his wife, daughter, and the mundane security of his former life, Welles is changed in ways he could not have imagined. The closer he gets to discovering the truth about the missing girl and disturbing film, the more endangered he is himself, as is everyone connected with him, including his “partner” Max, as well as Welles’ wife and baby daughter.

Many critics felt Cage was “miscast” as Welles, and most professional reviewers disliked 8MM intensely, accusing it of being “nearly as creepy, sleazy, and manipulative as the pornographic films it… condemns” or of being “a relentlessly murky odyssey… [emerging] as a secondhand Seven” (the same screenwriter wrote both films). Janet Maslin of the New York Times found Cage’s character “unrelievedly drab,” but added that “[though the film] includes profanity, partial nudity and ugly violence, its depictions of pornography are “relatively discreet.

Roger Ebert was one of the few professional reviewers who actually admired 8MM, writing that it “raises moral questions that the audience has to deal with, one way or another,” making 8MM a “real film

that deals with the materials of violent exploitation films, but in a non-pornographic way; it would rather horrify than thrill… It is a real film. Not a slick exploitation exercise with all the trappings of depravity but none of the consequences. Not a film where moral issues are forgotten in the excitement of an action climax.

Intense and edgy, 8 MM, is not a film for the faint-hearted. Though the film never graphically portrays the pornographic aspects of its subject matter, the disintegration of its protagonist from quiet and respected family man into desperate and violent avenger is disturbing: it may be uncomfortable for some viewers. Available for rent ($2.99-3.99) from Amazon, iTunes, YouTube, GooglePlay, and Vudu.

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Top Crime Films — Told From the Criminals’ Perspective

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There are so many ways to look at crime in films, from the perspectives of the victims, of the law enforcement officials, to that of the criminals themselves. Early films tended to concentrate on the perspective of the crime-fighters, saving the stories of the criminals for short, factual documentaries. With one of the most famous crime films ever, Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather, based on the novel by Mario Puzo, that focus changed, virtually creating a genre where criminals and those who were involved with evil doings, either voluntarily or against their will, were presented in a more empathetic and sympathetic light. In any event, whether you feel any emotional connection with the criminals in this genre of crime film, it’s created some of the most interesting and complex characters, played by some of the greatest actors in their best roles, and made some ground-breaking films.

The Godfather
Part One

Virtually ignored by Hollywood during production, The Godfather was one of the earliest films that examined crime entirely from the perspective of the criminals. Based on the bestselling novel by Mario Puzo — and the Oscar-winning screenplay by Puzo and director Francis Ford Coppola — the story centers on a fictional New York Mafia family, the Corleones, led by its patriarch Don Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando, in an Oscar-winning role), who’s attempting to groom his eldest son, Santino [Sonny] (James Caan) to take over the “family business,” while providing for his weaker middle son, Fredo (John Cazale), and his adopted son, Tom (Robert Duvall), and trying to keep his youngest son, Michael (Al Pacino) who’s graduated from college and served his country during the War, out of the “family business” altogether.

As you can imagine, that’s a formula for disaster when everyone in the family and everyone with whom it does business is a criminal — and violent ones, at that. Filled with big name stars, peppered with memorable lines (“Luca Brasi sleeps with the fishes”), awarded with Oscars and multiple nominations, The Godfather set the standard for crime films from the criminals’ perspective.

The Godfather
Part Two

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One of the first sequels that was actually as good as, if not better than, the original film, Part Two of The Godfather Trilogy — also written by Mario Puzo and director Francis Ford Coppola — reunited most of the characters from the first film while interweaving their continuing story with the “flashback” story of Don Vito Corelone, this time played by Robert DeNiro (Oscar winner for Best Supporting Actor), who had the monumental task of imitating the magnificently original, complex, and tortured criminal played by Marlon Brando — only at a younger age. Showing the development of both Vito’s and Michael’s forays into the criminal world, both men are as sympathetic as they are vicious, as family-oriented as they are ruthless, as interesting as they are complex.

Many viewers who’ve seen all three of The Godfather films can’t decide if they like Part One or Part Two better, and it was a toss-up for me which is best since they’re so different yet both so excellent. The Godfather, Part Two couldn’t exist without Part One, but they’re equally good. Sometimes, channels show The Godfather Trilogy in “chronological” order according to the storyline within the movies, so excerpts of Part Two are shown before Part One, but I don’t recommend watching the films like that, as you lose all the nuances of Part Two, including those in the storyline, the irony, and the actors’ performances.

 King of New York

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Directed by Abel Ferrara, whose work often explores the human side of criminals and organized crime, King of New York stars Ferrara’s “perfect gangster actor” Christopher Walken as Frank White. Coming out of prison after seven years, White is trying to get back in the game, and it involves drugs. Aided by loyal underlings like Jimmy Jump (Laurence Fishburne), Test Tube (Steve Buscemi), and Lance (Giancarlo Esposito), Frank White delves into the drug scene as it’s developed while he was “paying for his crimes,” and tries to do something good that he’ll be remembered for. Most specifically, he wants to fund a hospital for the poorer section of New York where he operates. The fact that he’s out of jail, still alive and operating, galls the New York detectives who hound him: Bishop (Victor Argo), Dennis (David Caruso), and Flanigan (Wesley Snipes), trying desperately to either indict or kill White.

At the premiere, some viewers — including director Ferrara’s wife — were outraged at the multi-layered, sympathetic portrayal of the criminals, especially that of Frank White (Walken), who tells the lead detective Bishop, “I’m not your problem: I’m just a businessman.” With most viewers, King of New York has become a cult classic and is consistently highly praised critically.

 The Funeral

The_Funeral_movie_poster

Also directed by Abel Ferrara and starring many of his favorite actors, this film, set in New York in 1939, concentrates on one family, but a small one, consisting of three brothers and their wives (or fianceés), as well as their co-horts and colleagues. Led by the eldest brother Raimundo [Ray] Tempio (Christopher Walken), who’s aided mostly by his brother Cesarino [Chez] (Chris Penn, Best Supporting Actor, Venice Film Festival), the story begins with the death of their youngest brother Giovanni [Johnny] (Vincent Gallo) and their attempts to find his killer.

The eldest brothers’ wives, played by Annabella Sciorra and Isabella Rossellini, respectively, serve as the moral counterweights to these men, and attempt to be guiding lights to the the youngest brother’s grieving fianceé (Gretchen Mol). While Ray (Walken) says things like, “If I do something wrong, it’s ’cause God didn’t give me the grace to do what’s right,” his wife (Sciorra) tells the murdered brother’s fianceé, “They’re criminals: there’s nothing romantic about it.” It may not be “romantic,” but it’s intense and fierce, and has memorable performances by everyone involved, including the one by rival gangster Gaspare Spoglia (Benicio Del Toro) as one of the “suspects” in the brother’s death. With its disturbingly unexpected ending, The Funeral is one of the classics in this genre.

 Reservoir Dogs

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 Quentin Tarantino’s writing & directorial debut, Reservoir Dogs shows the tentative, sometimes humorous, “before” and the intense “after” of a diamond heist by a group of professional thieves who do not know each other, but suspect, during the crime itself, that one of them is a “snitch” since the police arrived during the commission of the crime. Assembled by Joe (Lawrence Tierney) and his son Nice Guy Eddie (Chris Penn), the criminals are given pseudonyms and firmly instructed not to share any personal details with each other, including any crimes previously committed or places of incarceration.

Quentin Tarantino has a cameo role as Mr. Brown, but the film pivots on Mr. White (Harvey Keitel), Mr. Orange (Tim Roth), Mr. Pink (Steve Buscemi, who objects to his name in a hilarious scene), Mr. Blonde (Michael Madsen). The nonlinear storyline, a hallmark of Tarantino’s films, puts the viewer in the same position as the other criminals: unaware if there even is a snitch, let alone who it might be. Brilliant performances by the top-billed actors, including one of the scariest “dance scenes” ever by Mr. Blonde (Madsen) just before “interrogating” a hostage policeman, Reservoir Dogs was an instant critical success and has attained cult status.

Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead

DenverdeadThe title of this neo-noir crime film alone gets most people’s attention. Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead actually came from a song by Warren Zevon, and he allowed the filmmakers to use it on the condition that his original song be played during the end-credits. In the film, the protagonist, Jimmy the Saint (Andy Garcia) is a former hitman attempting to go straight. Unfortunately, his non-criminal life doesn’t pay as well, and his former boss, The Man with the Plan (Christopher Walken), has paid off his debts and now wants Jimmy, along with any crew he wishes to hire, to do “an action” not a “piece of work,” the latter of which apparently includes murder.

Gathering a rag-tag group of criminal associates — Pieces (Christopher Lloyd), Franchise (William Forsythe), Easy Wind (Bill Nunn), and Critical Bill (Treat Williams, in his career-best performance) — Jimmy is supposed to scare away a boyfriend of the ex-girlfriend of The Man with the Plan’s pedophile son Bernard (Michael Nicolosi): The Man with the Plan blames Bernard’s attempt to kidnap a 7-year-old girl from a playground in broad daylight on his despair over losing the former girlfriend.

Because Walken’s character, confined to a wheelchair after an assassination attempt, repeatedly emphasizes that this is only an “action” — wherein the new boyfriend is to be scared away so the girlfriend will ostensibly come back to Bernard — and not a “piece of work — where the new boyfriend would be killed — the viewer knows that something is bound to go very wrong. This film achieves much of its power from its creative vocabulary: the criminals are to do “an action,” not a “piece of work.” They all long to retire to a life of “boat-drinks,” but are threatened with “Buckwheats” instead. Even their nicknames — Pieces and Critical Bill, for example — come from their characters or former behavior. Rounded out by Dagney (Gabrielle Anwar) as Jimmy’s love interest, Lucinda (Fairuza Balk) as the prostitute he tries to protect and reform, Joe the Diner-Narrator (Jack Warden) attempting to pass on the story of Jimmy the Saint’s “rep” to the next generation, and the involvement of the outside hitman Mr. Shush (Steve Buscemi), this neo-noir classic has been called, by one critic, a “clone” of Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. That critic needs to watch the film again, and much more attentively, because Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead is unique and far too powerful to be any other film’s clone.

 The Usual Suspects

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After all its Oscar nominations and wins — for Christopher McQuarrie’s original screenplay and for Kevin Spacey’s role as Verbal Kint — it’s difficult to believe that, initially, no major studios wanted to finance The Usual Suspects. Executives believed it was too complex for audiences (always an insult to sophisticated audiences), had too much dialogue, and too many characters. Boy, were they ever wrong. This neo-noir crime film begins with “five known felons” in a line-up after a truck of guns goes missing. While in lock-up, McManus (Stephen Baldwin, in the best, and perhaps only dramatic, role of his mostly stoner-comedy career) and his partner Fenster (Benicio Del Toro) tell the others — Hockney (Kevin Pollack), Keaton (Gabriel Byrne), and “the gimp” Roger “Verbal” Kint (Kevin Spacey) — about another high-scoring job. Keaton agrees to “one job,” though he has ostensibly “gone straight.”

Complications arise, however, and things spiral out of control for these career criminals, especially when the mysterious “Keyser Söze” becomes involved, represented by his lawyer, Mr. Kobayashi (Pete Postlethwaite). The interrogation scenes between Special Agent Kujan (Chazz Palminteri) and Verbal (Spacey) make up some of the best scenes, with the greatest dialogue ever. Brilliant, intense, humorous, violent, sophisticated, and with one of the most “definitive and popular plot twists” in the history of the genre, The Usual Suspects is worth watching dozens of times. Just to see all the clues you missed the first time.

 ♦

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