Thursday, April 17, 2008
Pacino plays Jack Gramm, a forensic psychologist whose testimony puts away accused serial killer Jon Forster (Neal McDonough). Jump to nine years later. Forster is about to be executed but a string of torture-rape-murders duplicating Forster's MO raise questions about whether the wrong man has been sentenced to death. Then Gramm gets a call telling him "tick tock doc" you have 88 minutes to live (I couldn't see my watch in the darkened theater but apparently the call comes at 20 minutes into the film so that the rest of the film plays out in pseudo real time). Suddenly everyone in Gramm's life becomes a suspect, bodies start to pile up, and the cops are seriously considering arresting Gramm.
Leelee Sobieski and Al Pacino in 88 Minutes (Columbia)
Let me try to run through some of the more egregious flaws in the film -- I'll try not to give away too much but if you still plan to put yourself through the torture of seeing this film there may be PLOT SPOILERS ahead . First, the torture/rape/murders are of the kind only Hollywood can conceive - they involve having the killer break into homes, set up an elaborate pulley system to hang his gorgeous young victims in their sexy lingerie, and then he slices and dices each in exactly the same way. This is Hollywood torture porn because it needlessly and mindlessly sexes up the crime and never conveys the horror. Then when Gramm gets the first threatening call (from someone who sounds like Jigsaw from the Saw movies, I guess everyone has the same voice changing device), he never considers going to the police and asking for protection even though he has friends there and it would solve a lot of problems early on. But then I guess the film would have been over at the 25 minute mark.
Meanwhile, Forster convinces a network to let him go on the air live, hours before his execution, to plead his innocence. Then while he's on the air, Gramm calls him to get inside his head and hopefully make him crack on national television. Yeah, right! Forster's going to suddenly fess up to all his crimes just as he's about to win a stay of execution. Later, when Gramm insists that he's being framed for the murders, he's told that there is DNA evidence - semen, to be specific - in the latest torture victim. Gramm explains that the killer obviously got Gramm's semen from another women he slept with and then injected it into the vagina of the corpse. Are you kidding me?! Then there are little things like having a student bring over risk assessment papers to Gramm even though Gramm expressed concern that the killer might be one of his students. Oh I could go on but I've probably given away too much in trying to satisfy my need to vent about how ridiculous the plot is.
On top of all these absurdities, producer-turned-director Jon Avnet shoots some scenes as if they were the denouement to the comedy Clue in which each character gets a tight close up with punctuating music cue so we can assess their status as a suspect. There's a montage in Gramm's classroom where each student gets one of those Mrs. Peacock-with-the-lead-pipe-in-the-library accusation shots. This is done in part to create enough red herrings to feed an army of penguins. Everyone is given something to make him or her suspicious. The Dean has a grudge against Gramm; one student is infatuated with him; another's been secretly visiting Forster in prison; the campus cop even has a hidden agenda; and the temp security guard at Gramm's apartment is made to look particularly unsavory. It reminded me of Inspector Clouseau's line "I suspect everyone and I suspect no one."
Avnet then directs all his actors to just look suspicious all the time -- this means a lot of furtive glances and shifting eyes -- so that the audience won't figure it all out. What he doesn't realize is that one half of the audience has figured everything out about 15 minutes in, while the other half doesn't give a damn. Avnet makes a feeble attempt at "style" by employing grainy, scratched footage for a flashback involving Gramm's baby sister, but that's apparently all the style Avnet could muster. As I alluded to earlier, Avnet also uses torture in an entirely gratuitous manner, and casts his film with mostly sexy young actresses that are difficult to believe in their roles.
The film had no opening credits, except for the title 88 Minutes . Maybe that's because no one wanted to take credit for this mess. But if you wait until the end, you will find one lone screenwriter credited with the script. Maybe he was the only one dumb enough to leave his name on it. Gary Scott Thompson is left with the sole responsibility for the screenplay of 88 minutes . Thompson has one hit ( The Fast and the Furious ) and a string of straight to video features on his resume. He serves up a lot of talk about psychology but fails to invest any of his characters & with much of a personality for us to analyze. Gramm could have been an interesting character - especially with Pacino playing him - if he had been allowed some complex psychology. But he's not. When Gramm makes that live call to the TV show running & Forster's interview, Gramm tells his cop buddy to listen in because he's going to get Forster to reveal his hand. That scene alone is so lame that it's hard to take Gramm seriously as a crackerjack forensic psychologist. Plus, when did forensic psychologists become such celebrities that they are recognized wherever they go, can command the police to do their bidding , and have lavish corporate offices with state of the art security systems? He's high powered and high profile beyond belief, and to starin credibility more he tells us that he came to Seattle to try and escape to find a quiet life. It's as if Thompson forgot to fact check his own material. Thompson also relies heavily on cell phones to keep his plot moving. Gramm spends half the film on a cell phone either taking calls from his tormentor or ordering his assistant (poor Amy Brennemen) to place calls, get his car, run security checks and download information. I'm surprised he doesn't have her run DNA evidence as well. This film could not have been made without cell phones, they are a vital element in moving the story forward and they develop more personality that some of the characters.
Amy Brennemen in 88 Minutes (Columbia)
88 Minutes reminded me of a story my cousin told me. He was a cinematographer shooting a low budget thriller in Europe. He said that on the flight back home the director panicked that the killer was too obvious so he decided -- without reshooting or rewriting -- to simply make the killer the hero, and the hero the killer - you know, so that the audience would be surprised. 88 Minutes seems to invest about the same amount of thought and care into its script. Sure it's elaborate but with a flashy, look at me arrogance that proves hollow in the end.
I hesitate to evaluate the cast because Pacino has long been one of my favorite actors. Coming from the New York stage, he initially bristled with passion, intelligence and integrity. But then came films like Bobby Deerfield, Revolution, Cruising, Gigli and Ocean's 13. 88 Minutes definitely occupies the bottom rungs of his filmography. Although the material is ridiculous to the point of inducing laughter, Pacino still gives it his method best, trying to find some ounce of humanity in a cardboard cutout. But his biggest acting challenge here proves to be trying not to be dwarfed by all the leggy actresses. Other fine actors whose talents are wasted include William Forsythe, Amy Brenneman, and Leelee Sobieski (she was so radiant in A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries ).
88 Minutes (rated R for disturbing violent content, brief nudity and language) is a film that had been sitting on the shelf for something like a year. Maybe it would have been better off staying there. I just hope Al Pacino took home a hefty paycheck and is investing it in another independent project like his documentary Looking for Richard .
Companion viewing: Dog Day Afternoon, Looking for Richard, A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries, Zodiac