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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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Girl, You’ll Be A Woman Soon: Chandra Shines on HBO’s The Night Of, 107, Review

Spoilers

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HBO’s limited mini-series, The Night Of, is an intense and merciless crime drama. Created and written by Steven Zaillian and Richard Price, and based on BBC’s Criminal Justice, it examines the contemporary criminal justice system in America through the case of Nasir “Naz” Kahn (Riz Ahmed), a Pakistani-American college student, in the post-9/11 world of New York City. Accused of raping and murdering a rich, white girl, Andrea Cornish (Sofia Black-D’Elia), who got into Naz’s father’s cab after Naz “borrowed” it, without permission, in order to attend a college athletes’ party, Naz has been subjected to the impersonal maws of the justice system, which simply does not care whether or not he is innocent. The police, the detectives, the DA, the Judge, the Medical Examiner don’t care about the evidence unless it fits their preconceived storyline about Naz’s guilt. Meanwhile, interred inside Rikers since his arrest, Naz has steadily been rising in the criminal ranks, under the tutelage of inmate-murderer Freddy Knight (Michael Kenneth Williams). Now entering the Defense phase of the trial, Naz revealed more ugliness to his character in “Ordinary Death,” while his attorney, Chandra (Amara Karan), began to shine.

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Chandra at Trial

We already had a glimpse of Chandra’s talent last week, when she gave a concise opening statement, after agonizing over it for hours, as well as when she dismissed DA Weiss (Jeannie Berlin, below) with the statement to the jury, “She likes to be called Mrs. Weiss.” You wouldn’t think a small statement like that would make a difference in your perception of someone, but it did. Instantly, you realized that DA Weiss is misrepresenting herself, for some unknown reason, in a professional world where she already has an impressive title: District Attorney. Chandra’s swipe was powerful and unexpected.

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In “Ordinary Death,” Chandra continued to shine as she took the role of lead Defense Attorney in Naz’s trial. Though it was settled earlier in the season that she would handle the trial because Naz’s original attorney John Stone (John Turturro) had no trial experience, she surprised me with her confidence and her handling of the witnesses. Without even knowing that Box (Bill Camp, below) and his fellow detectives discovered another victim that is, according to him, clearly identical to the murder of Andrea Cornish, Chandra shredded Box on the witness stand. She made him seem like an arrogant punk in his mis-handling of the evidence (when he took the asthma inhaler from the crime scene and gave it back to Naz). She made Box seem incompetent because he hadn’t interviewed — or even found — any other suspects. Just before his retirement, in fact, she trounced him so soundly that he couldn’t even enjoy his own party.

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Chandra was as effective dismantling Box as DA Weiss was at shedding doubt on one of the Defense’s key witnesses, Dr. Katz revealed evidence about the Five-Finger-Filet (FFF) Knife Game, which Chandra (or the show writers) mistakenly called Mumblety Peg.  Katz revealed that The Victim’s skin cells had been found in a gash in the coffee table, indicating that her wound had come from playing FFF with the suspect, Naz.  Katz also revealed things about the crime scene that the detectives seem to have missed, such as the defective lock on the security door. Katz gave good testimony for the Defense, but Weiss attacked his character in her cross-examination. Chandra did the same thing to Box on her Cross. That’s a Defense Attorney at her professional best.

Though Chandra didn’t see the threatening looks Naz was giving a former classmate who was on the witness stand — testifying that Naz dealt drugs, selling individual Adderall pills from his prescription — Chandra managed to stay cool despite the Reveal of more negative aspects of Naz’s character. After we learned that Naz dealt drugs, though on a small scale, and was attempting to intimidate one of his “customers” on the witness stand, we learned that the violence Naz displayed while in high school was not an isolated incident. Chandra was in the midst of cross-examining Naz’s high school basketball coach — who earlier in the season revealed to Stone that Naz had thrown a classmate down the stairs, breaking his arm, without provocation — when the coach revealed that two students had been assaulted by Naz.

Though Chandra’s voice went quieter, and her body went slightly more rigid, she managed to continue to ask about the Two. It seems that our boy Naz threw a full can of Coke at another student, just as soon as Naz returned from the suspension he earned after assaulting the first boy. Despite Chandra’s attempt to relate these violent assaults to post-9/11 persecution of American Muslims, the only thing viewers — and jurors, presumably — took away from the coach’s testimony was that Naz, once again, has lied about his past. Chandra acted like it was a mere blip on her radar, though it surely rattled her. At the Defense table, Stone was giving Naz wary, almost terrified glances while Chandra managed, somehow, to continue the trial and retain her professional demeanor.

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Chandra and Naz’s Mother

Chandra is handling all aspects of the murder trial professionally, including the behavior of Naz’s mother. Safar (Poorna Jagannathan, above) conspicuously walked out of the courtroom while slides of the victim were being shown. Chandra later went to the bathroom and told Mrs. Khan that the jury had to look at the slides, so Mrs. Kahn had to do it, too: for Naz’s sake, Safar couldn’t walk out like that. Safar Khan was having none of that, however. She wouldn’t let Chandra comfort her, she didn’t return to the courtroom, she stopped coming to the trial, and, furthermore, she continued to refuse to talk to Naz when he called her, despite Chandra’s telling Safar that Naz wanted to talk to her.

Though Safar’s leaving the courtroom and no longer attending the trial are going to look bad to the jury, I can’t say I blame her. Naz’s behavior on “the night of,” even if he didn’t kill the girl, has ruined his family’s life. Both parents are working crappy jobs, desperately trying to support the family; they had to pawn their silver, jewelry, and other precious objects to get cash; and both parents were victims of attacks. Naz’s father Salim (Peyman Moaadi) has been continuously confronted with racism, and his cab partners forced him to sell out his third of the cab so that they could buy a new one — without him. When he objected and called them “thieves,” one of them said, “And you are the father of a murderer.”

While looking at pictures of Naz as a baby and a young child, Naz’s mother was threatened with a rock thrown through Naz’s bedroom window. His parents’ lives have been permanently altered for the worse by Naz’s selfish and careless behavior. Safar has reached a point where she may no longer believe that her son is innocent; more important to her, however, is the question, “Did I raise an animal?” She doesn’t want to be responsible herself for Naz’s behavior. Chandra was unable to answer Safar’s question or to convince Naz’s mother to come back to the courtroom, but Chandra showed herself a compassionate professional when she attempted to get Safar back into court, and to answer Naz’s phone calls.

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Chandra and The Kiss

The only failure of Chandra Kapoor’s professional character in the episode was the weird moment when she kissed the imprisoned Naz (and let’s just hope the kiss, which was clearly captured on surveillance video, won’t get Chandra debarred). I realize that Chandra doesn’t know that Naz snitched on fellow inmate Victor, who was sexually abusing Petey (Aaron Motey). Chandra doesn’t know that Naz conspired with Freddy to kill Victor, acting as a decoy by asking the guard for a new asthma inhaler while Freddy went to the prison TV area and sliced Victor’s throat. Chandra doesn’t know, as Vikram Murthi of Vulture.com writes, that Naz “may not have murdered Andrea, but he has now murdered someone [i.e., Victor], albeit indirectly.” Nor does Chandra realize, as Vikram continues, that Naz’s “mother may not have raised an animal, but[Naz] has become one.”

Despite Chandra’s professional lapse — which she seemed to regret immediately — and despite the fact that the scene was extremely short, it’s generated lots of discussion, far more discussion than the length of the scene would seem to justify. This may be due to the fact that virtually everyone was stunned by that kiss. Though at least one person on a forum wrote that it was about time the two kissed because “Chandra’s super hot,” that comment had no replies, and other viewers thought the kiss made no sense at all. Most critics and reviewers seemed to agree with Scott Tobias of the New York Times:  (emphasis in quote below is mine.)

“Ordinary Death” makes the show’s first significant misstep by following through on the romantic tension that’s been building between Chandra and Naz. It makes a certain dramatic sense. Naz would have taken the plea deal had Chandra not persuaded him to follow his conscience. Unlike Stone, who doesn’t trust a jury to reach the right decision regardless, Chandra believes an innocent person should assert his innocence. It becomes a contract between them: She trusts in his innocence; he trusts her to rescue him from a life sentence. It could be argued that there’s an intimacy between them that goes beyond a lawyer-client relationship, because there’s so much at stake for both of them. But having them actually kiss, however much Chandra seems to regret it afterward, undermines her as a professional. “The Night Of” goes to great lengths to emphasize the grind-it-out dignity of veterans like Box, Stone, and Helen, but it does a disservice to Chandra by giving her a jailhouse crush.

Jason Concepcion  thought the kiss was “in a subplot that feels like it was teleported in from a different show.” A fantasy or a science fiction show, perhaps, which is certainly not the genre The Night Of  has been aiming for with its scrupulous contemporary realism. Kevin Fallon of The Daily Beast just found the kissing scene to be bad writing (emphasis below is mine).

The extent to which Chandra is out of her element becomes evident not in the courtroom, in which she does a brilliant job casting doubts that Naz could be the killer during testimony from the pathologist she and John hired, and then credibility-ruining questioning with Detective Box (Bill Camp). Instead it becomes evident during a meeting with Naz in which the two end up kissing, she so entranced by his new, confident demeanor, assured manner of speaking, and bulked up sexual appeal. In a show that’s been praised for the realism with which it portrays this kind of crime story, it’s a twist that threatens to, as they say, “jump the shark.”

That kiss was more than jumping the shark, more than “a moment of television in which there is a gimmick or unlikely occurrence that is seen as a desperate attempt to keep viewers’ interest.” Beyond the fact that most viewers are already sufficiently interested in The Night Of without any sexual activity beyond the premiere episode’s (mostly implied) interaction between Naz and The Victim, that kiss between Chandra and Naz was completely unnecessary to the storyline. If anything, the kiss alienated many, if not most, viewers. Further, it didn’t evolve from anything in the previous episodes. Though Naz called Chandra late at night at least once, letting us know that he was either extremely lonely or that he might be attracted to Chandra, she has never given any indication of reciprocal feelings. It’s true that she broke up with her boyfriend and was distressed about it, telling fellow attorney Stone about the break-up in a previous episode, but there has never been even the slightest hint that Chandra found Naz even least bit interesting as a person rather than as a client, let alone that she found him sexually attractive.

Unprepared for by earlier episodes, completely out-of-character, and unnecessary to the storyline, the kissing scene was more than “jumping the shark” because it was more than just bad writing. The Chandra-initiated kiss was an insult to professional women. Many reviewers and critics were appalled by Chandra’s blatantly unprofessional act. As a professional woman myself, I was most sincerely offended. Virtually all professional women I have ever worked with or known personally have gone out of their way to be even more professional than their male colleagues, simply because women must be more professional and more successful than males in the same field in order to succeed. Having Chandra kiss Naz, who is not only a prison inmate but her client, who is not only her client but a college boy several years younger than she is, was insulting and offensive to professional women everywhere. It was also ludicrous: are we to believe that a grown woman, already established in a law firm, albeit as a young lawyer, and already experienced in trials, would risk her entire professional career by kissing a boy client?

I wasn’t the only reviewer who found it insulting. Peter Allen Clark of Mashable.com complained that

Everything we have been shown presents [Chandra] as a professional, intelligent, competent woman who would never start making out with Naz in a jail cell. That, one of the very few things that actually happened this week, was insulting to her and to us. I get that Naz reached out more and more, but she never seemed interested in reciprocating. That scene made The Night Of seem like boring, pedestrian TV. (emphasis mine)

Very boring. Very pedestrian. Very jumping the shark, I’d say. It would have made more sense, given Naz’s ability to dissemble, had Naz initiated the kiss: in fact, even though he did not, at least one reviewer postulated that Naz may to use that kiss to betray Chandra and frame his appeal. But it was Chandra who initiated the kiss. Chandra kissed Naz first, though he responded. So we are left with this question: did Chandra kiss Naz because she’s unprofessional, or did the writers simply throw it in because there hasn’t been any sexual activity in The Night Of since episode one?

If the former, we have no idea why Chandra would suddenly become so severely and flagrantly unprofessional.

If the latter, then Shame on you, Writers.

In any event, Chandra, this is for you:

Girl, you’ll be a woman soon.
Soon, you’ll need a man. 

A man, Girlfriend, not a boy.

And certainly not a boy who’s a criminal besides.

Next week is the finale of The Night Of, which is rumored to be about an hour and 45 minutes long. Though we don’t know if we’ll get any resolution to the question of Naz’s guilt or innocence, and I seriously doubt that the show is suddenly going to disintegrate into any Perry Mason moments and have the real murderer confess, the finale is bound to be an intense episode. The finale airs Sunday 28 August at 9p.m. ET on HBO.

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