(originally published in The Outreach Connection in April 2008)
Critics have had a field day with Jon Avnet’s 88 Minutes, which racked up a startling 11% approval rating on the bellwether Rotten Tomatoes site. You know, I don’t like to run with the crowd, but the film is really not very good. I wouldn’t have gone to it at all if not for Al Pacino - readers may be aware that I remain a true believer in the man and his magic. I don’t even mind that he makes easier choices now – it’s good to watch him seemingly comfortable in his own skin after those more preoccupied early decades.
I’m being more generous than most critics even in positing that the movie could have avoided completely sucking. The premise (an outlandish one, but aren’t they all?) has Pacino’s forensic psychiatrist Jack Gramm being informed via a call on his cell phone that he has only 88 minutes to live. It seems to have something to do with a serial killer who was locked away nine years earlier, largely on the strength of Gramm’s testimony, and is scheduled for the electric chair that very day. Meanwhile, more killings are happening, using the killer’s distinctive M.O., and the evidence points to Gramm. Well, Gramm, as you would, assumes that 88 minutes should be enough to figure all of that out, and so he does.
The real villain of the piece is director Avnet, whose work here is seriously heavy-handed. One’s heart sinks right from the clumsy depiction of the murder that starts the film, and takes further blows as one poorly staged, indifferently acted scene follows another. The basic premise could have worked without the 88 minute gimmick, but since the gimmick is there, it’s pathetic how little rigour the film brings to it – virtually at every juncture, events take place that couldn’t possibly have taken the five minutes, or whatever, the movie claims. I sometimes find myself thinking this is a kind of well-meaning naiveté, that directors like Avnet are so engaged by the basic magic of the medium that the raw elements they work with start seeming infinitely pliable. But no, the weight of evidence points to pervasive disregard. Another example would be the threadbare nature of the disguise wrapped around the Vancouver locations, standing in here for Seattle. Basically it’s an old man’s film – the prominent presence of several attractive young women (a number of them bearing crushes on Gramm) just underlines that.
I’ll never grudge Pacino a few mistakes, but it’s unclear whether he learned from it, because he’s already made another film with the same director, re-teaming with Robert De Niro. A decade ago, in the wake of Heat, that would have still have been an event, now it’s barely a footnote (the trailer, available online, looks pretty dull – actually all I recall about it is how old and big De Niro looks). Even as I write this review, I wonder if I should just delete it and forget about 88 Minutes. With the even more thoroughly derided Gigli, a few years ago, I could think of a few plausible (to me at least) against the tide observations. Now I stare at the walls and wait for insight. None comes. 88 minutes pass. I still live.
Pacino on Letterman
At that point I leave this article aside for a day, and in the interim I watch Pacino’s appearance on Letterman. He’s 68 now, and I can’t exactly say he doesn’t look it, or maybe it’s more some parallel universe notion of 68. He doesn’t really seem to be concentrating. He brushes off Letterman’s questions about movies, preferring to talk about theater (his first anecdote is the same one he used on his last appearance). I thought it was mesmerizing, but I can’t help wondering what the average, say, 25-year-old would make of it. I still think of Letterman himself (another idol of mine) as young and at the centre of things, I really do, even though he just turned 61, and sometimes sounds like it.
88 Minutes barely gets a mention. I wonder if anyone cares. When I saw the movie, there was one other guy in the theater – based on the box office, it must have been the same story just about everywhere. I start to develop a perverse compulsion now to keep writing about it, because who else will? And you know, my relationship to movies has changed too. I used to think maybe this column would be a springboard, that I’d try to latch onto a bigger publication, or maybe expand onto the web. But now I think that would be unsatisfying, and just not very useful. The volume of online movie writing, even good stuff, grows exponentially. Every day I stumble across another blog. There’s been a lot of hand-wringing lately about established American critics getting laid off, bought out, and so forth – not too many of those stable pulpits left any more. Makes sense to me – who needs them? Why should anyone, seriously, be able to pay their mortgage by churning out 800 damning words on 88 Minutes, and let’s say two or three others a week. That’s not serious work. It’s a sideline.
So this is the limit of my ambition in that area. I hope to stay in this space for as long as the Outreach will have me, and after that I’ll be finished with movie writing. I don’t know if I’m talking about a month, or twenty years. I hope it’s a long time, but it’s like anything else, I’ll only become more set in my ways. Like, you know, every other Letterman show features a Regis Philbin joke. Even giving the time of day to an old man’s film like 88 Minutes, for any purpose other than to mock it, will be an act of creaky rebellion.
London to Brighton
But another thing you may not know about Letterman – the show regularly ends with terrific music. Hot bands, new discoveries – nothing complacent going on there. I feel it helps keep my own musical taste young (last thing I bought was the Black Keys, if that means anything to you). So let’s turn this thing round. Hear about London to Brighton? It’s a micro-budget, hard as nails British thriller, made by 35-year old Paul Anthony Williams. The movie is extremely scrupulous, without a hint of unearned glamour or polish. It’s also very hard to watch, functioning at times almost as a documentary on the reality of whoring, including the 12-year-old girl variety. It does have a gangster character who may owe a bit too much to movie conventions (or maybe not, I wouldn’t know), but it’s not at all complacent about the reality of guns, pain, and making money (or the fraught meaning of time). The movie’s implied economic analysis is devastating, its “happy” ending highly conditional. The only conventionally beautiful scene in there, a shot of a cottage in Devon, might as well be set in Oz. You think No Country for Old Men had anything profound to say about evil and morality? No country for old men? – really? Who has the money, the power, the talk shows? OK, usually not the best movies. But is that the game decider?