Bayside resident Mark Metcalf is an actor who has worked in movies, TV and on the stage. He is best known for his work in "Animal House," "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Seinfeld."
In addition to his work on screen, Metcalf is involved with the Milwaukee International Film Festival, First Stage Children's Theater and a number of other projects, including the comedy Web site, comicwonder.com.
He also finds time to write about movies for OnMilwaukee.com. In this week's installment of the Screening Room, Mark looks at "88 Minutes" and "8 Seconds."
88 MINUTES (2007)
After the characters are introduced and the plot is revealed and the timer is started on the "88 Minutes" deal, I was hoping that they would stay true to the promise of doing it in real time so that it would all be over in less than an hour and a half.
It's that good. I mean that it's that bad.
Al Pacino, with his hair teased up to make him as tall as possible, plays a very successful forensic psychiatrist/criminologist/college professor/author/star of courtrooms/and hunter of serial killers from Ted Bundy to the latest, the Seattle Slayer.
I mention the hair teased up because we all know that film stars are often more vertically challenged than average -- Robert Redford, Paul Newman, all the way back to Alan Ladd, and Dustin Hoffman, and Al Pacino. They all tend to be smaller people with big heads.
Alan Ladd used to stand on a box or have his costars walk in a trench. Or, so the story is told. I've worked with Sylvester Stallone and seen the lifts he wears in his specially made shoes to make him equal to those he acts opposite.
Camera angles can disguise it, staging a scene so that one person is sitting while the other is standing can also keep the audience from realizing that the hero, the star is, at least physically, diminished by their opposite number. This is especially true when the lesser of the two is a male and his leading lady stands above him.
Tall women surround Al Pacino, in almost every scene of "88 Minutes." Alicia Witt is 5 feet, 8 ½ inches. Leelee Sobieski is 5-10. Amy Brennaman is the shortest at 5-6. Deborah Kara Unger is 5-7. Those may not be really tall women, but they are all taller than Pacino. It obviously doesn't bother him; I wonder why it bothers me. It does bother me. I think, primarily, because I am used to seeing men and women at least eye to eye. Of course, Pacino is not. Throughout his life, he has been looking slightly up at men and women. Therefore, it shouldn't matter. It is actually good to realize that an actor whom I have always thought to be a little more vain than most is not at all concerned about how he measures up to his costars.
It also bothers me that he has surrounded himself with so many beautiful and considerably younger women. However, that is probably just jealousy.
Pacino is a legend. An actor's actor. His performance in "Serpico" is like a series of acting class scenes each demonstrating a different technique taught at the Actor's Studio under the leadership of Lee Strasberg. He considers himself a stage actor first and foremost, even a Shakespearean. He directed and starred in a film called "Looking For Richard" about and actor putting together a performance of "Richard III." So what is it that bothers me?
This film bothers me because at the center of it is a vain, self-centered man playing a vain, self-centered man, except he has left out the part about being vain about his height. Also, the main character is a star in his field surrounded either by people who are loyal beyond reason or ones who question constantly his ego and his need to be the center of attention but are drawn irresistibly by the gravitational pull of his sun, which is a scenario that I am sure could be applied directly to Mr. Pacino's life.
So, is he stretching, learning, and challenging himself or is he just earning a dollar? And what's wrong with earning a dollar at your craft? Joe the Plumber does it. Even though his name isn't Joe.
Something about Pacino -- the gravitas, the world-weariness, the actory self-indulgence and self-awareness -- makes me expect more than just a movie. But, "88 Minutes" is just a movie. A formula movie. Some of that is the director's fault. Jon Avnet has spent more time producing than he has directing. He isn't a hack director, but he also isn't innovative, doesn't startle you and I don't think he draws more from his actor's than they easily give.
That is the real problem with this film. It looks good. Seattle looks good. The people in it are attractive and vaguely within the realm of a possible reality. It follows a certain logic, but it is movie logic which always has holes in it because you can always say, "Well, it's just a movie." And if it is about anything, it is about Pacino, because he is good and he brings his own story and his own agenda, his own depth. The movie exists and he exists within it, but he never surrenders to it. He is stronger than it is; there is more to him than ever was imagined in the script of the film. Thus, it is out of balance and doesn't work.
I thought I'd find a theme in movies with the numeral eight in the title and that were about time. I found no theme really, except the number "8," and that's more a coincidence than a theme. "8 Seconds" is better than "88 Minutes," and not just because it's faster. It also is simpler, plainer, more honest, and has a lot more heart.
It is a an open-hearted homage to a man who rode bulls for a living for a very short time, but apparently rode them better than anyone had ever ridden them before.
Lane Frost appears to have been a very special man, a hero, not just because he could take a beating on top of 1,500 pounds of angry, bucking muscle for eight seconds or more, but also because he never lost his joy and his openness, his friendliness and his faith in others.
Lane Frost died in the arena in Cheyenne, Wyoming, when a bull named Taking Care Of Business gored him, breaking a rib that punctured his heart. He had ridden the bull the requisite eight seconds, dismounted and was walking away when the bull charged him. He was 25 years old.
The movie celebrates his life the way he celebrated every moment. There is a nice tension as he continues to try to please his father, never quite getting the full measure of his father's love. Cynthia Geary gives a very nice performance as the only woman he ever loved, and he loved her well, even though he strayed. She stayed with him through it all.
Luke Perry, who probably suffers from having done "Beverly Hills, 90210," is very good as lane Frost. He surprised me because I don't expect much from him after the "90210" experience. That is what I mean by he probably suffers from it.
John Avildsen directed it. He has directed some classics in a very low-key, workmanlike way. He is very respectful of the material, always sees through to character, beyond the glitz, and, having been an editor, he tells a good story very well. He directed "Rocky," the first one, the good one. He also directed "Joe" -- a somewhat overlooked film from 1970 starring Peter Boyle. They are all working class films about working class people and they are made in that honest, simple way that can't help but be appealing. But, they often are overlooked because people are looking for the glamour.
This film, "8 Seconds," is a purely American story, overflowing with purely American sentiment, and it works because it is simple and plain and has a great big heart. That's enough for me.
Mark Metcalf is an actor and owner of Libby Montana restaurant in Mequon. Still active in Milwaukee theater, he's best known for his roles as Neidermeyer in "Animal House" and as The Maestro on "Seinfeld."
Originally from New Jersey, Metcalf now lives in Bayside.