attack of the cab monster: day two

queue de grâce begins day two with a pair of ruminations on the elusive nature of the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

the first movie on our list today is barry levinson's sleepers (1996). based on lorenzo carcaterra's autobiographical source novel, it tells the story of a group of four childhood friends growing up in hell's kitchen in the late sixties. they're just regular neighborhood kids, like you've seen a dozen times, and we pick up with them shortly before the terrible accident that changes their lives irrevocably. after running out of things to do to stave off the boredom of another new york summer day, they settle on a prank scamming a hot dog vendor out of free lunch. they swipe the cart but their scheme goes awry and they end up almost killing a man. in the aftermath, they are sent to a correctional facility for boys whereupon they are subjected to a seemingly endless cycle of physical, emotional and sexual abuse by a group of sadistic guards led by kevin bacon. flash forward over a decade and two of the boys, now full grown gangsters, stumble across bacon having dinner at a pub one night. they exact their revenge by emptying their revolvers into him and are put on trial for murder. the remaining pair of friends, including one who is the assistant d.a. now prosecuting the case, put together an elaborate scheme to ensure the boys walk while simultaneously exposing the vile practices that went on at the institution that left this black mark on their souls. the linchpin in this whole plan is the parish priest, played by robert de niro, who is asked to lie to provide the boys with an unassailable alibi and help them obtain some measure of justice for the horrific crimes they suffered at the hands of the guards.

i am divided on this one. as a film, it is obviously technically competent. the hell's kitchen segments in the sixties are as evocative and nostalgic as they should be. the kids are normal, funny and flawed but not delinquents, so you pull for them. they serve as a sobering reminder that the only thing that stands between the kids in the sandlot (1993) and hell on earth is one bad decision. de niro doesn't really get the chance to work at full power but half a de niro is better than a lot of other whole actors. had i known nothing about about the source material, i would say this is a good, not great, film and leave it at that.

the problem is i am too familiar with the controversy surrounding the veracity of carcaterra's book and it causes some problems for me. it proved distracting while watching the film. i don't necessarily doubt the recollection of abuse. i am well aware of the monstrous things that have gone on in institutions like that and the things you find in the darker corners of human nature ceased to surprise me long ago. the problem comes with the second half of the film and novel. murder trial transcripts are readily available public records and yet not one investigator/reporter was able to turn up evidence that this trial ever happened (and, in 1995/6, a lot of people were looking). so i have to wonder, why do something as irresponsible and damaging to your credibility as claim an elaborate revenge fantasy as a true story when it undermines your overall aim? i don't know why you would go to the trouble to concoct this thing, put your real name on it, and then dilute the power of exposing these animals by amending the story with what you wish would have happened positing it to be a "true story about friendship that runs deeper than blood". it just doesn't add up to me and it took away from the impact of the film. de niro's priest also strikes a bit of a false note with me. not the performance, but the motivations and final actions of the character. he seemed far too much of a pragmatist to lie just to free a pair of boys who would doubtlessly kill again, and soon, no matter how much he cared for them. he seemed far too reverent to violate the sanctity of his office with this lie. he seemed far too even-handed to think that murder and abuse are equivalent crimes. i applaud carcaterra's dedication to kicking over rocks and shining a light in these places, i just question his execution.

we don't have to stray too far from this territory to get to our next film, andrew jarecki's excellent documentary, capturing the friedmans (2003).

what began as a documentary about children's entertainers in new york evolved into an entirely different project when jarecki began to notice something disturbing in the interviews with david friedman, a prominent birthday party clown. there were hints of something dark in his family history and it turns out that was a child pornography, incest and sexual abuse scandal that occurred in the eighties. david's brother jesse and father were imprisoned for it, his father dying there, but was it a clear cut case or was it a bit of a witch hunt? there is compelling evidence just about everywhere you look but none of it points to the same conclusion. the father, arnold, did possess child pornography. no one disputes that. in an autobiographical story he wrote in the late eighties, he claims to have experimented with sex with his younger brother. both his and jesse's statements were amended and recanted more than once. i did this. i didn't do this. i didn't do this but i said i did because i thought it would be better for my dad/son. in their defense, jesse raises a legitimate question about why a kid who claimed to have been the victim of 31 instances of sexual abuse during one season's computer class would sign up for a second season. just when you think you have a fix on the answer, the documentary shifts under your feet and you are faced with a new conundrum. on a gut level, the ample amount of home video footage that this family created over the years strikes me as odd. in fact, everything about them does. they are obviously dysfunctional but it's not just in the usual ways. it's a way that, had i ever had occasion to visit that house as friend of one of the sons, i would have never gone back. too much noise, too much filming, too much instability and peculiar need. you just get a vibe from some people and the friedmans have that vibe in spades. this is not to say, however, that it makes them all criminals. obviously, the father was, at least with the child pornography. the molestation charges and their extent, though, i still have reservations about. overall, it is a fascinating document about what we regard to be true and not true in the people we love and how sheer force of will can swing that pendulum, regardless of evidence. i highly recommend it.

can't say the same for this:

jesus, i hate the fifth element (1997). how in the world did luc besson convince anyone to spend 90 million dollars on this self-indulgent, cacophonous mess that hadn't advanced, philosophically, beyond when he first started writing it at age sixteen? oh, to be a fly on the wall in that pitch meeting - "it's like demolition man (1993) on ecstasy!" sounds great! when do i get to shoot myself?

thanks, gary. just make it quick.

what a mess. it steals from any number of superior science fiction films before it and strains out everything pure until all that's left are the annoying drippings. bruce willis might as well be wearing a shirt that says "i'm just cashing a check". oldman's arms-dealing, inverted hitler is only notable because of his neck-and-neck competition with ian holm to see how much talent can go to waste. cheap latex-masked catfish orcs mug to the camera when they get hit on the head. i half expected little birdies to fly around. the keystone cops are subtle next to the mangalores. the plot, such as it is, is completely unfocused. and glowsticks in the police car? now you are just trying to piss me off. i didn't freeze the frame because i was afraid if i had there would also have been whistles and pacifiers hanging from the rearview mirror. rave kids simply shouldn't make movies. it may not be the worst science fiction film i have ever seen. there are plenty of sprint-to-video titles that qualify for that. it is, though, without a doubt, the single worst 90 million dollar science fiction film i have ever seen. bad sets, bad special effects, a remedial, yet sometimes incomprehensible, plot and horrible acting. and this:

there, now you don't have to watch any scene this insufferable clown is in. you're welcome.

usually i can find at least one good thing to say about a film and in this case it is that besson shows the proper reverence for girls with freckles. that's it. and, in case you were wondering, i consulted the periodic table on this to see just what the fifth element is.

boron. exactly.

whew. that one took it out of me but i shall prevail. i have it on good authority that tomorrow france is sending an emissary to apologize for luc besson.

i accept your apology. oh, france, you know i couldn't stay mad at you.


  1. I took a date to see the Fifth Element in the theater when it came out. As we walked out of the theater, neither of us said a thing. We pretty much avoided talking about the movie we'd just seen for about 20 minutes. Finally, after a lull in conversation, I asked "Did you think that was as horrible as I did?". A sigh of relief escaped, as she confessed that she didn't want to bring it up in case I had actually liked it. Aside from this instant, I've been pretty much made to feel like a pariah for this opinion for almost the last 15 years.

  2. This is in two comment posts, because apparently as one, it was too long...

    Day Two! This is like christmas. Every day I get up and open the present of another electronic page of goodness, straight from the wishlist I sent to the big man himself. I highly recommend taking the captain’s position on this ship if given the opportunity...

    I didn’t know anything about the case when I originally saw, “Sleepers,” so I can’t speak to the notoriety of the case itself damaging the credibility or value of the movie. I do give a lot of merit to this point, though. I feel like “The Social Network,” suffered in this same way. Yeah, alright, it was a good movie, but we are still in the middle of the Facebook boom and Mark Zuckerberg’s story is not that old. Without enough passing of time, a layer of greatness is scraped right off the top, like eating a cupcake without the frosting. How could the movie be complete, when the story doesn’t even feel complete yet? At any rate, I was young and high and unaware of what was going on in the world when “Sleepers,” came out in 1996 and I did not know anything about the case then. (When I watched it again years later, it didn’t matter if I knew the case or not, because I still hadn’t known the first time. So the film just doesn’t carry that same baggage for me.)

    What kicks the most ass in this movie is Robert DeNiro. He is one of the most overrated underrated actors out there. All classifications of filmgoers have a connection with him, and he can truly, truly act when the role calls for it. He is the glue in this movie, by way of subtle looks, minor mannerisms, and understated believability. Once or twice I considered googling Robert DeNiro + priest, just to see if secretly he had been ordained just before “Mean Streets” came out and God changed his calling. He is just that good. And despite having trouble believing the decision he makes to testify on behalf of the boys at the trial, his performance reminds me more that his character is a flawed human being just like the rest of us more than it pisses me off and makes me cry foul.

    The boys in the film also do an incredible job and I always get a little sentimental when I see my old buddy Brad Renfro, may he rest in peace, on the screen. I believed that kid could have been great, if only the triteness of young Hollywood and drugs hadn’t swallowed him up.

    Whether this story is true or not (and the mystery of public records not existing does hinder its credibility quite a bit), the story is good. And the truth is that the truth is what we make it. If this is what happened in that guy’s head, then there’s truth in there, no matter how big the exaggerations.

    On a side note: I think Dustin Hoffman was pretty wasted in this movie. That role could have been played by a strong nobody or a weaker somebody with better results. And growing longish old man hair does not cover up your identity, no matter what. It just makes me think about your disturbing longish old man hair.

    Overall, I think this movie is pretty solid. It’s a hard story to take in, but Barry Levinson does a strong, compassionate job. And even Minnie Driver doesn’t annoy the crap out of me, which she seems to have a unique ability to do.

  3. ...continued from last comment...

    Sticking with truths, sexual abuse, and solid filmmaking, I absolutely had to follow “Sleepers” with the phenomenal documentary “Capturing the Friedmans.” I could go on and on about it, but I think the words above do a damn fine job. What a crazy story. What a great documentary. What amazing footage. Definitely on my top five documentaries of all times list, no matter what day of the week you ask me.

    And that bring us to “The Fifth Element.” I have to admit, I chuckle a little inside every time I think about Cole Roulian trying desperately to get through this film. Something had to lighten the mood after two dark stories in a row, and what better than the elementary idiocy of science-fiction and action? And, before I say anything more, I must suggest that anything is watchable if you get Milla Jovovich. And, Milla Jovovich in Jean-Paul Gaultier outfits of the future? Oh, hell yeah. I am not a fashion gal, or an objectification-of-women gal, but I gotta give it up for the screen candy here.

    If Luc Besson had made this movie when he was 16 instead of years later, we would have seen promise in the kid. Unfortunately, it is hard to take this kind of movie seriously when the creator is an adult. But, whatever. I don’t think anyone was trying to win any Academy Awards with this one. It’s so bad that it becomes fun to look for things to complain about. And, if you know me, you know I love to complain about things and imagine that if everyone would just listen to me, then everything would run more smoothly and be a better experience. So, that’s why this movie has credit; because it’s a wide open canvas for the egotistical brushstrokes of self-righteous critiques. The lack of attention to detail is astonishing! The acting is horrible! The story relies on the poorly formed crutch of “the world will end if this thing doesn’t happen!” The cheap latex-masked catfish orcs is exactly what I’m talking about. There’s a gimmick behind every prop, character, setting, and scene that is desperately clinging on to the thin string that holds this movie together (Milla in Jean-Paul and that cute little appealing priest). I love that I want to punch Chris Tucker in the face! I love that I want to punch that priest’s Pee-Wee Herman-lookin’ moron assistant in the face! I love that I want to punch the non-existant sexual chemistry between Bruce and Milla in the face! I love that Cole probably wants to punch me in the face now! Had it been available, this could easily have been replaced with the much, much better “Starship Troopers” from 1997, although they don’t give Dina Meyer an equivalent wardrobe in which to get dirty. ; )

  4. only one flaw in your programming plan. the fifth element left me far sicker to my stomach than either incest/abuse film did.

  5. at least it wasn't 2002's "collateral damage." talk about unbearable.