Thursday, May 24, 2018

Crappy Nic Cage Movies that Aren't Actually Crappy #2: "8MM"

*As usual, SPOILERS throughout. Don’t read any of my articles unless you’ve seen the movie or don’t care if you find out what happens.

8MM is one of those forgotten Nicolas Cage movies. According to most critics (it’s at 22% on Rotten Tomatoes), it was an ugly film through and through. But I like it, a lot. Maybe I’m sick, I don’t know. This film works for me, I think, because I didn’t bring many expectations to it. I didn’t expect this to be an indictment of the porn industry. I wasn’t expecting some amazing mystery. I was expecting a dark, straightforward detective story filled with colorful, and terrible, characters. In that regard, 8MM is a success.

This is such a dark movie, and I just dug it from the start. The amazing cast features Cage, Joaquin Phoenix, James Gandolfini, Peter Stormare, Catherine Keener, and Anthony Heald. Phoenix is great, and he provides much needed comedic relief as he plays the weirdo to Cage’s normie. Gandolfini is perfect as porn producer scumbag whose pornos are so poorly produced that people try to return them to video stores. And Stormare steals the show with a delightfully weird performance; honestly, if this were made today, Cage would play his role. It is a detective story, but it’s nothing amazing in that regard. It’s very by the numbers. Cage follows the clues, and they lead him from one disturbing porn dungeon to another. It’s never really a mystery whether or not the video is real. The mystery is whether or not Cage will be changed by his journey, and will those responsible pay for what they did. Maybe the film gets a little simplistic with its Paul Schrader-esque violent final third, but there is still plenty left to absorb once it’s all said and done. I truly do not understand what other people saw to make them react negatively to this film. Once again, however, maybe I’m sick. But I’m sick, so is Roger Ebert. Yes! Once again, Ebert and I are in agreement. He is one of the few high profile critics who liked 8MM.

Also, I wrote about this before on my site, but I didn't go into much detail aside from, “Give it a chance!”

Should we automatically believe screenwriters when they disown a film? Also, what have I done with my life that led me to read the script of a 1999 Nicolas Cage movie? I'm starting to think these articles are saying a lot more about me than the films they're supposedly about. Oh well.

Andrew Kevin Walker was one of the most sought after screenwriters after Se7en hit big. He was synonymous with early David Fincher work, even though Se7en is his only screenplay credit with him (he’s credited as a “script doctor” on The Game and Fight Club [Fincher considered him important enough that he named three detective Andrew, Kevin, and Walker to technically get his name in the credits], and he has a cameo in Panic Room). It makes sense. Fincher’s early work is very dark and nihilistic. In fact, 8MM was originally going to be directed by him.

Instead, Joel Schumacher ended up with the job. Schumacher is unfairly written off these days largely because of his work on Batman Forever (a film I will always love because I was obsessed with it as a kid) and Batman and Robin (a film I do not love). Sure, those were two very cartoonish Batman movies, and I can see why people hate them. But that doesn’t undo films like Falling Down, A Time to Kill, The Lost Boys, and Tigerland (a movie I will definitely revisit on this site). So because 8MM was Schumacher’s first film after Batman and Robin, and because it starred Nicolas Cage, whose last film, Snake Eyes (coming up next), was destroyed by critics, it wasn’t that surprising that the film’s screenwriter disowned the movie. Of course, Schumacher and Cage fucked up a great Andrew Kevin Walker script! One critic (Ron Wells from Film Threat) even mentions that “it’s too bad the script didn’t find its way to another David Fincher who could understand it.” Schumacher was too stupid to work with such material!

Walker gave an interview to The Guardian in which I assume he was supposed to promote the film, since it was published on April 9 and the article ends with “8MM opens on April 23.” (It opened in February in the US, so at least he waited until the British release to start bashing it.) He pretty much disowns the movie, claiming that Schumacher ruined the film by including a letter from Mary Anne’s mother at the end that meant “everything is going to be OK.” He claims he didn’t watch it, and only watched a preview. (Click the link to read all of his complaints.) I decided to look up the script (I had some time to kill, okay?) to see just how different the final product was.

I skimmed through his original script (close enough to catch a typo), and I think he's being too precious with his work. He feels that the addition of Mary's mother's letter at the end made everything okay (I disagree, but perhaps it added more closure when he wanted things to end more bleakly). I think the audience needed that letter since the mother played a big part in Cage becoming emotionally involved in the case.

He also complained about a bowling scene being left out to establish Cage as a suburban guy. I guess I get that, but those two scenes, and some general cutting and switching of dialogue is not enough for him to trash talk the movie upon its release, in my opinion. When I went through the original script, I expected entire characters to be added or cut. What I read felt, to me, like the movie I watched.

Some changes are for the better, by the way. In the script, Longdale is clearly a villain upon introduction (he flat out says he disagrees with Cage being brought in and refuses to have anything else to do with the investigation). In the film, it's not that big of a surprise, but it is less obvious. Also, instead of the snuff film being in his trunk near the end, it's in a bank and he has to drive with Longdale to get it. And Max is killed offscreen while this happens.

Machine calls Cage at home in the script, which seems odd. The bigger difference is the encounter with Machine at the end of the film, and I side with Walker on this one. In the script the whole sequence is basically wordless, and it ends with Machine dead, mask still on. He lived and died anonymously in the script. He was no one and everyone. If we’re looking for commentary about bad men who do bad things, it’s a profound statement. In the film, he is unmasked, even putting on some dorky glasses (how did they not break during the fight?). He then gives a speech about doing what he does just because he likes to. There’s no reason. No monster. It’s the same thing Walker accomplished in the script without dialogue. I guess Schumacher wanted this to be extra clear, and he probably thought people would want to see a face.

Mrs. Christian's death is seemingly due to illness in the script. No letters and money left for Cage. I guess one could infer she killed herself. But this is just another example of Walker wanting it to be just a shitty world with no resolution and Schumacher adding resolution.

I do wish Max's monologue about the future of porn in America stayed in the film. His prediction was that eventually medical videos would be the only thing left for people to get off to. Maybe leaving that in would have appeased the critics that felt the porn world wasn’t analyzed enough.

A writer has a right to defend his work, but it looks to me that Walker paid the price for that interview with The Guardian. He has not had much produced since then, and in the late 90s, this guy was THE screenwriter for edgy, interesting material. But who gets the blame for 8MM? Cage and Schumacher because they're easy targets.  I think it's a good movie, so I don’t think anyone should be blamed for anything.  But if you dislike it, just know that Walker deserves blame too. Just because he claims his script was butchered doesn't mean it was, and it doesn't remove his vast input for this movie.

Is there a better version of this film from this script? Maybe. But I think Walker is wrong about the ending. He wanted it to be bleak, and he took issue with Mary Anne’s mother writing a letter that vindicates Cage’s actions. I see the complaint, but I think Schumacher looked at his film and realized, “Holy shit, I better allow just a little hope or something at the end.” Did we need Cage giving a silly grin at the end? No. But I don’t think the letter automatically makes it all okay. I’m pretty sure Cage is still going to be a bit messed up for the rest of his life because of the case and his own actions. The letter, to me, was more about showing that Mary Anne’s mother might be okay. I’m okay with finding out that there’s hope for her to move on with her life.

Reading the reviews for a film like 8MM reminds me that it is impossible to review something objectively

That’s obvious to most people, but I always try to write reviews based on the film by itself and to judge the film by what it sets out to do, not what I want it to do. It’s hard, though. How do you review a sequel, for instance, without commenting on the original? How can you review a movie like 8MM objectively if the very subject matter disgusts you? Also, how can you review 8MM by itself when you’ve seen Hardcore, the 1979 Paul Schrader film that is extremely similar? The answer is, you don’t, as evidenced by the reviews I came across on Rotten Tomatoes.

Going through the many negative reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, something occurred to me: critics’ moods and sensibilities affect their opinion. This is why it has always bothered me when a critic states their opinion as fact. Perhaps I add “In my opinion,” “I think,” and “To me” far too often in my writing. But I want to make it clear that these are my personal reactions, not some grand judgment on the film. Trust me, there are times when I am in no mood to watch a movie like 8MM, and if I watched this movie in such a mood, I would probably have a very negative response. But I watched it in no particular mood. I just wanted to watch the new Nic Cage movie. And I liked it. But mood can change that. How else can you explain why some critics decried it for the violent retribution of the third act while others, like Roger Ebert, praised it for showing that depravity has consequences?

Maybe it’s not about mood, but expectations. Many of the negative reviews seem to want the movie to do something it never set out to do. They focus on the porn aspect and feel that the film doesn’t have anything to say about it. I never watched this movie and considered it to be about porn. It’s part of it, of course; it’s the background of the entire movie. But if we’re following the trajectory of Cage’s character, the biggest revelation for him is that people, even rich people he respected, are capable of the same depravity as the lowest of the low. Even then, he wants to know why terrible people do terrible things too. Of course, there’s money, but he questions both Longdale and Nicky about whether they masturbated or got off to the death. It is about porn, in a way. Cage seems to accept the purpose of typical porn; it’s the escalation to murder that confuses him. He doesn’t seem to make the connection that perhaps porn had to lead to this. This is something Max mentioned in his monologue in the original script. Critics may have been more pleased if that monologue had stayed in, and if Cage had been more revolted and confused by all the porn dungeons he encountered along the way.

But instead, Cage was a detective, and all the porn stuff just happened to be part of the case. I saw this movie as a detective story, not a commentary on the porn industry. I think the presentation of everything makes it clear that this is an inherently terrible industry. But Cage is just trying to solve one (of most likely thousands) case of a woman destroyed by the porn industry. There’s nothing in the film that serves as an endorsement of pornography; the underground porn industry is presented as, unfortunately, just part of the world.

But hey, that’s just my opinion. Is that a cop out? Yes, it is; just as much as asking yourself questions and answering them in an article is a weak writing ploy. That’s just how I do things.

Is this an unofficial remake of Hardcore?

It’s impossible to watch this movie and not be reminded of Paul Schrader’s film, Hardcore, which was about George C. Scott venturing into the porn underworld to find his daughter. There’s a (now internet famous) scene of him watching a porno and we only see his reaction, much like Cage watching the snuff film at the beginning. Scott teams up with a porn star, and Cage teams up with a porn store clerk. Both characters end up being disposed of (Scott’s partner is no longer needed, and he abandons her, Cage’s partner is killed). And both films end in violence. Walker mentioned Taxi Driver (which Schrader wrote) as the type of movie he intended 8MM to be. How did he not mention Hardcore? I’m not saying it’s a ripoff; the guy obviously likes Schrader, so I see this is as his homage to that film.

Critics loved Hardcore (84% on RT), so why did they hate 8MM? I think it’s because of the difference twenty years can make. Hardcore was meant to be an eye-opener for the viewers. “Look at this world! That could be your daughter!” In that way, it was more focused on the porn industry and what it does to young women. 8MM does not attempt to make that statement, and for good reason. 8MM is the dystopian sequel to Hardcore: we were warned, but we didn’t listen, and now look where we are. There’s nothing shocking here for anyone. This is the world now. It’s a much more bleak look into the underground porn industry because it presents it as matter of fact. Of course this stuff and these places exist; there’s demand for it, and it’s never going away.

This brings me back again to that monologue from Max. Here it is in full:

You've got Penthouse, Playboy, Hustler, etc.  Nobody even considers them pornography anymore.  Then, there's mainstream hardcore. Triple X. The difference is penetration. That's hardcore.  That whole industry's up in the valley. Writers, directors, porn stars. They're celebrities, or they think they are.  They pump out 150 videos a week. A week. They've even got a porno Academy Awards. America loves pornography. Anybody tells you they never use pornography, they're lying.  Somebody's buying those videos. Somebody's out there spending 900 million dollars a year on phone sex. Know what else? It's only gonna get worse. More and more you'll see perverse hardcore coming into the mainstream, because that's evolution.  Desensitization. Oh my God, Elvis Presley's wiggling his hips, how offensive! Nowadays, Mtv's showing girls dancing around in thong bikinis with their asses hanging out. Know what I mean? For the porn-addict, big tits aren't big enough after a while.  They have to be the biggest tits ever. Some porn chicks are putting in breast implants bigger than your head, literally. Soon, Playboy is gonna be Penthouse, Penthouse'll be Hustler, Hustler'll be hardcore, and hardcore films'll be medical films. People'll be jerking off to women laying around with open wounds. There's nowhere else for it to go.

Now, if that monologue gets left in, and people think of this as the new generation’s Hardcore, would critics have seen this in a more favorable light? I think so. It makes the movie more about porn in general, and what’s going on in America. It definitely broadens the scope of the movie a bit, but there’s really nothing more in the script about it, so it might not be as effective as I think it would be.

Making Max a porn actress instead of male porn star clerk could have gone a long way to make this more about the industry, especially since the character is killed at the end, instead of just being abandoned, like in Hardcore. Why didn’t Walker just do this as a remake of Hardcore? It would make so much more sense, and I think people would have responded to it favorably as the darker version of the story that fits our world today.

And while the girl Cage is looking for is not his daughter like it is in Hardcore, there’s still an element of that in 8MM. Cage’s infant daughter is a prominent fixture in the film. While it’s never overtly stated, it’s easy to imagine he’s thinking that one day it could be his daughter he’s searching for in these terrible places. Perhaps that needed to be more obvious in the film, anyway. As it is, his daughter seems more like a prop than an actual person he cares about (more on that later).

The similarities to Hardcore are undeniable. It’s just unfortunate that the filmmakers didn’t acknowledge what they were making.

"I like how sharp knives are, Machine."
"Sharp is great, but their murderability is what does it for me, Dino."

Terrible, terrible men

I mentioned that making the Max character a female could have improved the film in regards to having something to say about the industry, but that’s breaking my own rule. Judge a movie by what it is, not what you want it to be. If that’s the case, then it’s clear to me that this film wanted to focus on all the terrible men that are responsible for such an industry. Think about it, are any of these people good? I suppose Max is, but he’s on the fringe. He’s not responsible for it. Obviously Longdale, the dead billionaire who commissioned the film, Dino, Machine, and Eddie are all terrible. But what about Cage?

Cage is the “good guy,” no doubt. But look at the evidence. He is a terrible husband and father. (Yes, part of his motivation at the end is to make sure his family is safe, but it’s his fault they’re in danger in the first place.) He treats them like they’re props in his world, only to be dealt with with an occasional phone call, and even those stop after a while. As the father of a 1-year-old, I cannot imagine the hell that would befall me if, after just returning from a weeks-long job, I immediately set off on another job that kept me from home for months, and then I stopped calling altogether, and then I call screaming at my wife to get the baby and get out of the house. I’m sure my marriage would survive that just like Cage’s did. Why does Catherine Keener put up with this? I can only assume that this means something. Cage’s character is a plain, shell of a man, really. That way, he is an everyman. And the everyman is where all this porn ends up. It’s a common claim when porn is brought up: are the people watching this stuff just as responsible as the people making it? You know, there wouldn’t be drug dealers if no one did drugs. So even though Cage isn’t watching porn and loving it, he’s still consumed by it, and his family, mainly his wife, is relegated to prop status. She is no longer a woman to him. She is a thing. And what turns women into things more than porn.

Am I looking at flaws in this film and turning into surprisingly deep insights hidden under the surface? Yes, I am. But the fact that I’m able to makes that a moot point. There is much more going on in this film that the critics were just unwilling to delve into because they didn’t like the grimy surface. And isn’t that itself a metaphor for how we perceive the porn industry today?

How did they not choose the back cover image for the front? I dig creepy Cage staring into my soul, but screaming Cage is always better.

Is it crappy?

Do I even need to ask myself? This article, which I thought would be one of the shortest I’ve ever written, is now possibly (probably) the longest article I’ve ever written about a movie. Is this not evidence that this film has been unfairly dismissed by critics and the public? I like to think this crazy article of mine will dwell in the bowels of the internet for years, and one fine day another fellow lover of 8MM will find it and know that he/she is not crazy. There is another person out there who gets it. Or better yet, maybe Joel Schumacher will come across this, read it in full, and nod knowingly. If you’re reading this, maybe you think this is actually Schumacher writing it, pleading with people to like his movie. How will you ever know? In all seriousness, I feel like I’ve had some kind of Vulcan-mindmeld thing with Schumacher as I’ve revisited this movie. I saw things and had lengthy thoughts about stuff that never occurred to me the first few times I watched this. And I can’t stop. A little bit ago, I went down a rabbit hole in my mind about Cage’s daughter in the film, and the meaning behind his nickname of Cinderella for her. Sure, her name is Cindy, and it makes sense, or does it mean something else? Calling his daughter a Disney princess while he investigates the opposite of Disney purity? Is there a link between the two? Does raising young girls with the impossible dream of being a princess lead them to the same place Mary Anne ended up? Okay, I have to stop. Anyway, great movie! Thumbs up from me!

My favorite Nic Cage moments (Peter Stormare edition)

Cage is pretty tame in this one...for Cage (but I still have a few Cage moments I liked). So most of my favorite character moments belong to Stormare as Dino Velvet. I like to think that Cage lobbied Schumacher to let him play both roles, and Schumacher turned him down, but only because he didn’t have the budget. But imagine if that happened. My God, what a movie this could have been!

Cage is hilariously bad at hiding his smoking. This guy gives no fucks about his wife.

Max, reading Anal Secretary. Cage: “Catchy title.”

Stormare’s delivery of “hot sauce.”

Stormare putting the picture of Cage’s family in his mouth. Not that you want anyone to put a picture of your family in their mouth, but you really don’t want Peter Stormare doing it.

Speaking of that family picture, what a shocker that Cage isn’t in it. Was he there for the birth? The conception? Whose baby is that?

“Kill them, Machine. Kill them all.”

“Machine and I were just discussing the beauty of knives.” Really? Just Dino and his masked beast man talking about fucking knives? Where was that scene. Incredibly, in the original script, he elaborates even more about the knife discussion.

Random Thoughts

Sexy World was the original title. Wow.

Two raking scenes in a minute. I get it, it's fall.

If you read the negative reviews, many took issue with the violence in general, not that the film wasn’t bleak enough. I can’t imagine anyone finishing this movie, and thinking, “What’s with this uplifting ending? Suffer more, every character!” So I don’t think Walker’s intended version would have gone over much better.

The pic from the back of the case should have been the front.

I love the strange music and score.

The DVD is a flipper! Full vs. wide used to be an issue for me.

The DVD has that worthless scene selection card that I love for some reason. Actually, it’s a fold-out with promotional material...but why? You only get the booklet if you've already bought the movie. It's funny that it includes a quote from Walker, especially since he has never seen the film. And Schumacher, who ended up changing the script.

Walker wants a remake. Doesn't like the devil line, neither do I. But him calling for a remake is hilarious, especially since he won’t acknowledge the film itself is a remake.

Double Chekhov's gun scenes. Not only does he load it and whatnot, but we also get the scene of him putting it in the trunk with the camera lingering on the trunk. Something tells me that gun is going to show up again...

Take care of the baby, honey, I'll be solving porno mysteries for the next few months!

Cage finding the diary in the toilet tank always bothers me. Maybe I'm a weirdo, but it seems like I need to take the lid off the tank once every couple months or so. No one has lifted that lid in years? It had water in it, so it was functioning...why leave it there if she wanted her mom to find it?

Daryl! Mopping up in prison, being a general shithead. Such a pre-zombie-apocalypse Daryl thing to do.

So many phone calls. The point is to show the different worlds of the film. But mix it up. It seems like Keener says, “Aww, she's sweet" every scene she's in.

Cage’s line delivery on the phone is so awkward at times. A simple hello or goodbye can sound so odd in his voice.

Acknowledges the future of porn. This is a film that would not make sense only a year or two later.

“Sick shit. Buy five get one free.”

Inexplicable DTV sequel. Never watched it. Why try to turn this into a franchise?

Cage’s Oscar is in Gandolfini’s porn office. Is that a metaphor?

I could listen to Gandolfini’s character’s phone calls all day. “You know how bad a fucking skin flick has to be for some jackass to come back in a month with a fucking receipt and try to fucking return it?”

Dwelt a bit too long on that enema scene…

Do they own the 4th of July place or did she have to rent it again?

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